King Kong (1933)

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Every legend has the basis of truth. Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) needs to finish his movie and has the perfect location – faraway Skull Island. But he still needs to find a leading lady. This is Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) who’s done a little extra work but has never played a large role. She has a romance aboard Captain Englehorn’s (Frank Reicher) ship the Venture with John Driscoll (Bruce Cabot). No one knows what they will encounter on this island but once they reach it they find terrified natives seemingly worshipping a giant and the beast now has Ann in his sights and she is quickly kidnapped. Carl and John have to make their way through the jungle looking for Kong and Ann, whilst avoiding all sorts of prehistoric creatures and once successful they determine to transport Beast back to New York City to publicise their new movie … Women don’t mean to be a bother. Gorgeous, eerie and inventive, with a fairytale theme that resonates through the ages, this is a classic of Pre-Code Hollywood and is so clever in its structure:  before she ever encounters Beast, Ann is filmed rehearsing her potential reaction to a monster, so we are always present in the moviemaking process and the notion of predatory males hangs over the story like a fug. A warning about civilisation, greed and Hollywood itself, this is one of the most brilliant, beautiful and tender films ever made. Directed by Merian C. Cooper (the miniatures) and Ernest B. Schoedsack (the dialogue scenes) although neither is credited; with magical stop-motion effects by Willis O’Brien and an original story by Cooper and Edgar Wallace, with uncredited rewrites by James Ashmore Creelman who was working on The Most Dangerous Game (also starring Wray) at the time; with a final rewrite by Ruth Rose, who was Schoedsack’s wife.  It was beauty killed the beast

Torture Garden (1967)

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I am very well known for my excursions into the unexplored regions of the mind. If five visitors will pay extra, devilish sideshow carny torture act Mr Diablo (Burgess Meredith) promises people an insight into their real natures – violent, greedy and ghoulish – as they experience a taste of their future. Adapted by Robert Bloch from his own short stories, this contains four, plus a postscript, all directed by Freddie Francis in their fourth collaboration.  Look at the shears!  Enoch: Greedy playboy Colin Williams (Michael Bryant) takes advantage of his dying uncle Roger (Maurice Denham) and falls under the spell of Balthazar, a man-eating cat. Terror Over Hollywood:  Anyone who knows the titles of all the films I’ve made since 1950 deserves a break.  Starlet Carla Hayes (Beverly Adams) discovers her immortal celluloid co-star Bruce Benton (Robert Hutton) like all other movie stars is an android and the secret cannot be made public. Mr Steinway:  You really do love music, don’t you? A possessed grand piano called Euterpe becomes jealous if concert pianist owner Leo Winston’s (John Standing) new lover Dorothy Endicott (Barbara Ewing) and takes revenge. The Man Who Collected Poe:  He really was the greatest collector. He even collected Edgar Allan Poe himself.  Poe collector and obsessive Ronald Wyatt (Jack Palance) murders another collector Lancelot Canning (Peter Cushing) over a very desirable item he refuses to show him only to find it is Poe (Hedger Wallace) himself...  These stories progressively improve with great production design, sharp narrative turns and surprises aplenty, until the masterful final Poe pastiche and an ingenious twist ending. A wonderfully spinechilling Amicus anthology practically perfect for Halloween. Produced by Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg.

 

Joker (2019)

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Don’t you have to be funny to be a comedian?  Former psych hospital inmate, children’s party clown and wannabe standup Arthur ‘Happy’ Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) lives with his sick mother Penny (Frances Conroy) and dreams of appearing on Murray Franklin’s (Robert De Niro) cheesy nightly TV show which they watch together. Gotham City is rife with crime and unemployment, leaving segments of the population disenfranchised and impoverished with billionaire Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) in the running for Mayor. Penny was a former employee in the Wayne household and repeatedly writes him letters asking for money. Arthur suffers from a disorder that causes him to laugh at inappropriate times, and depends on social services for medication and weekly meetings with a social worker. After a gang attacks him in an alley, Arthur’s co-worker, Randall (Glenn Fleshler) gives him a gun for self-defence. Arthur invites his neighbour, cynical single mother Sophie (Zazie Beetz), to his stand-up comedy show, and they begin dating. When he witnesses three Wall Street guys harassing a woman on the subway train he opens fire and kills them and the city is suddenly awash in a movement of men in clown masks that threatens violent disorder in copycat clown costumes  … I used to think that my life was a tragedy, but now I realise, it’s a comedy. A perverse DC origins story written by director Todd Phillips with Scott Silver, this owes much to its setting – 1981, a city on its haunches, with human filth and institutional grime, and cinematic influences: Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy and of course Taxi Driver (Paul Schrader’s real-life inspiration was Arthur Bremer) which is interesting in the light of the maestro’s recent (highly derogatory) comments on superhero movies. And there’s Travis Bickle/Rupert Pupkin himself, De Niro, as the Jerry Lewis-type prism for Arthur’s fantasies of celebrity. And it’s modelled on classic psychodrama, up to a point. It hedges its bets by flailing determinedly in all directions ticking the usual boxes – sociological, pathological, neurological, daddy issues, a mad mother, illegitimacy, until its second hour descends into predictable ultraviolence (after that first exhibition at 30 minutes) albeit with this raft of reasons the wind at his back, you can’t blame Arthur, which is of course the whole point of this graphic novel brought to life. He’s a product of everything around him as well as the noises in his head so there’s no mystery left unturned. That neurological condition that makes him laugh long and loud and inappropriately turns into an unwelcome noise in the audience’s collective head too because we can see as he cannot that his talent lies not in comedy but in killing. Gotham City is no longer a pretend New York because the first three victims of Arthur’s vigilanteism are Wall Street employees of his all-powerful putative father, which is how the Wayne story is woven into this tapestry of excuses as if someone had written an elaborate series of backstories and decided to use every single one of them:  Oedipus writ large in a realist portrait of Bernhard Goetz-era NYC. There is literally nothing left to chance or ponder about this ugly individual and as we all know, bastards always blame other people and seek revenge for their no-name status. In this amorality tale he murders his mother to attempt to get close to his alleged father. And we all know what happens to Thomas Wayne because the Batman universe is ours.  It’s difficult to fault Phoenix’s bravura performance but much hinges on his harelip and innate ugliness which he just accentuates into unpleasant anorectic thinness to manufacture an urban monster. This Joker isn’t funny any more. How bizarre that the wonderful River Phoenix died 26 years ago today and it’s his brother Leaf who’s making the headlines. I feel like I know you – I’ve been watching you forever

 

Old Boys (2018)

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Model yourself on me and you won’t go wrong. Awkward but imaginative scholarship boy (Alex Lawther) helps the handsome but spectacularly dim school head boy and hero of their boarding school Henry Winchester aka The Mighty Winch (Jonah Hauer-King) pursue the fiery French Agnès (Pauline Étienne), daughter of a visiting teacher Babinot (Denis Ménochet) who is struggling for the past 18 years to produce his second novel … I’ll blast her with my charm bazooka! This Eighties-set comic drama starts with a very witty titles sequence, the typically upper class British schoolboys on a supposedly unique sports tradition which is really an outward bound torture session tramping through the mud, an experience likened to The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas in a low angle shot of the institution (resembling my own frightening alma mater), a piece of stripey uniform caught on the barbed wire demarcating it from the rest of civilisation (which appears to be Norfolk). I’m just not good at all this word shit, declares The Mighty Winch, a nice but thick joker who can do no wrong in the eyes of the school or indeed himself, so the truly smitten Amberson gets him to pose as a romantic à la Cyrano de Bergerac in a film which wears its French influences very happily with several songs dispersed on the soundtrack. This is about proving you are more than a labrador in trousers. That’s a line that could come from the mouth of comedian/actor Jack Whitehall which is interesting given that this is co-written by Freddy Syborn, his co-writer on TV show Bounty Hunters following their collaboration on Bad Education:  this guy has a recognisable writing voice combining tender observation with sleight of hand comments on the class system as well as a fondness for slapstick. The story gets emotional heft not just from Amberson’s helpless infatuation and his desire to make Agnès happy; but also from the to-and-fro of the French father-daughter as the novelist manqué depends on her to approve of his narrative choices (something that culminates in a bad romantic scene with Papa’s non-French speaking romantic interest). Let me show you what Planet Earth looks like. As for Agnès, she’s not just a romantic but a pragmatic wannabe set designer and knows that Berlin is where it’s happening (another amusing European narrative strand nodding to WW2, juxtaposed with a school screening of The Dambusters) which gives rise to a series of beautiful mini-theatres and greeting cards being unfolded to push the story further as the romantic correspondence and deception is pursued. So if this is as lightweight as those delicate messages’ construction it gains trenchancy from the ideas of multi-lingual co-operation. Someone, somewhere, behind these theatrical scenes is trying to tell us something. The screenplay is by Syborn and Luke Ponte; while it’s well directed by Toby MacDonald. They teach you all the ways you can die but only you can learn how to live

Boy Erased (2018)

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I wish this had never happened but I thank God that it did. Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges), the only son of a car dealer and small-town Baptist pastor Marshall (Russell Crowe), must overcome the fallout after being outed as gay to his parents following a violent sexual encounter at college, the truth of which he doesn’t wish to reveal. His father and mother Nancy (Nicole Kidman) struggle to reconcile their love for their son with their beliefs and Marshall approaches fellow pastors for advice. Fearing a loss of family, friends and community as Marshall is attempting to becoming a full-time preacher at his church, Jared is pressured into attending a conversion therapy programme called The Source. He comes into conflict with its leader Victor Sykes (Joel Edgerton) and begins his journey to finding his own voice and accepting his true self but not before a session of abject bullying perpetrated against fellow inmate Cameron (Britton Sear) has a devastating outcome …  Our family is so normal. The note of dreariness inbuilt from the first shot in actor Joel Edgerton’s sophomore directing outing after the superb home invasion horror The Gift is misleading and thankfully almost immediately dispatched.  Earnestness swiftly and happily becomes a victim of a suspenseful writing and directing style, Garrard Conley’s tangled memoir of evangelism and gay conversion camps transformed into something like a psychological thriller.  The performances, the hot-button topic and the treatment conspire to elevate this into a work pervaded by fear – from the militaristic therapy style (by Flea!); the horrible gay rape by student Henry (Joe Alwyn) immediately followed by its perpetrator’s desire to confess; and the prospect of a life under the guidance of a subliterate evangelical programme leader who replaces great literature like Lolita and teens’ diaries with misspelled handbooks (Almighty Dog) and gene-o-grams that seek to out family members (A for Alcohol, Ab for Abortion … etc) in an atmosphere where the word ‘intellectual’ is rhymed with ‘sexual’.  And it becomes a battle of the sexes with an angry mother finally strong enough to put a halt to the misguided form of masculinity threatened by difference. Enough said. But it’s never often enough, in this depiction of a perverted  and sinister take on Christianity which has its coda in the end credits with tension dissipated and history overtaking the story. Edgerton is proving a highly interesting filmmaker, isn’t he? I’m gay, and I’m your son. And neither of those things are going to change. Okay? So let’s deal with that!

Happy 80th Birthday John Cleese 27th October 2019!

And now for something completely different. The multi-talented man born John Cheese celebrates 80 years on the planet today. Fresh from Cambridge Footlights he started to work with the greatest generation of comics Britain has produced, and soon became a household name on BBC TV writing and performing sketches, later gaining infamy with Monty Python’s Flying Circus and then becoming legend with Fawlty Towers. With the Python crew he made hilarious and occasionally controversial big-screen comedies and then wrote and (co-)directed himself in A Fish Called Wanda. He’s a regular in Hollywood productions – doing comic bits, TV appearances, voicing animated characters, becoming part of the James Bond and Harry Potter franchises – and reunited with the Pythons on stage to pay his latest alimony bills. Absurdly talented, extremely funny and very, very tall, it’s time to pay homage to a genius of British comedy. Happy birthday John Cleese!

The Thing From Another World (1951)

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Do you suppose the Pentagon could send us a revolving door?  Scientist Dr. Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite) reports a UFO near his North Pole research base, the US Air Force sends in a team under Capt. Patrick Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) to investigate. They uncover a wrecked spaceship and a humanoid creature (James Arness) frozen in the ice. They bring their discovery back to the base, but Carrington and Hendry disagree over what to do with it. Meanwhile, the creature is accidentally thawed and begins wreaking havoc... That’s what I like about the Army – smart all the way to the top! Produced and closely supervised by Howard Hawks, although this is credited to editor Christian Nyby as director, it is usually categorised as a Hawks film (Tobey said Hawks directed all but one scene) and it has his usual tropes – a community of professional men on a mission, quick wit and a feisty woman (and Margaret Sheridan gets most of the best lines as Tobey’s useful love interest). I’m not your enemy – I’m a scientist! Add to this an alien accidentally defrosted and a journalist desperate to share a scoop, together with a philosophical difference between soldiers and scientists raging as a blizzard whirls outside and you have a thriller perfectly modulated in tense phases culminating in a dynamic fight that emblemises the Cold War (that setting’s no accident). Part of the narrative’s psychology derives from the horrors of Hiroshima and contemporary public scepticism about the supposed advances of science. This is a fun, smart, well-written and staged entertainment – it could only be Hawks, not that it really matters. Adapted from John W. Campbell Jr’s 1938 novella Who Goes There? by Charles Lederer with uncredited work by Ben Hecht and Hawks. Watch the skies!

Dark Journey (1937)

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Not bad but you need to practise. World War I is in full thrust, but Swedish fashion store clerk Madeleine Goddard (Vivien Leigh) has apparently not aligned herself with either side. When she meets German soldier Karl Von Marwitz (Conrad Veidt), she falls in love. Karl, who presents himself as a footman of low rank and supposedly disgraced officer, is in fact a high-ranking official in the German army and an aristocrat. Madeleine has secrets of her own – she is a spy and double agent, working for the Allies in a bid to uncover the new head of the German Secret Service in Stockholm. As Madeleine and Karl are pulled deeper into the escalating war, their love may be the thing that saves their lives but when her German co-conspirator Anatole (Eliot Makeham) is murdered events overtake them and their identities might just prove their undoing ... Is it a crime to be German?/It’s worse, it’s a vulgarity. This pre-WW2 drama is prescient, pacifist and fence-sitting, all at once, a notably atmospheric tale of spy/counter-spy in a Stockholm that presents rather like a certain Moroccan destination would five years later.  Leigh is inscrutable to the point of roboticism at first, then suave ladykiller Veidt comes along and she’s even more attractive than that saucy minx Brazilian socialite Lupita (Joan Gardner, wife of Zoltan Korda, uncredited producer Alexander’s brother) who seems permanently up for it. With maps, submarines, pips on the radio, coded messages on the fabric held up against lamplight and fog dappling the harbour, it’s a very attractive concoction with a terrific ensemble cast that includes Ursula Jeans, Cecil Parker and Robert Newton as a U-boat officer. With a screenplay by Lajos Biró and scenario and dialogue by Arthur Wimperis, this is assisted by nicely graduated greys and soft whites in the cinematography which was carried out at Denham Studios on splendid sets designed by Andrej Andrejew, and enhanced by a suitably suspenseful score by Richard Addinsell conducted by Muir Mathieson. Naturally, the costumes by René Hubert are rather fabulous. Directed by Victor Saville. It’s easy to touch your pocket, it’s difficult to touch your heart

Friedkin Uncut (2018)

Friedkin Uncut

That’s the beginning and end of a career – when you start to believe that you’re an artist. Francesco Zippel’s documentary about the director William Friedkin partly takes place against a travelling backdrop of three film festivals during 2017 (Lyon, Sitges, Venice) where his work was being celebrated, he was being honoured and he was screening a new documentary about a priest who carried out exorcisms.  The first subject for discussion with Friedkin himself and a variety of talking heads, from Wes Anderson to Edgar Wright, is The Exorcist, prompting an odd opening interview to camera in which he considers Hitler’s reputation versus what Jesus did but the context is then revealed to be the existence and interpretation of evil. He states that he made the film as a believer although brought up in the Jewish faith in Chicago by Ukrainian immigrant parents and he says if they’d been Catholic his mother would have been sainted. Quentin Tarantino says that 80% of a film’s success is dependent on casting and, aesthetics aside, he credits Friedkin with brilliance in that department. Full-time milkman, part-time actor (and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of That Championship Season) Jason Miller was Friedkin’s choice for the priest after he saw him on stage and he then dumped first choice Stacy Keach and waited a week for Miller to travel to LA by train. Miller was right for the role and that was that. [Ironically years later when Miller came to bring that play to the screen he cast Keach]. Friedkin claims to be looking for spontaneity rather than perfection and cast members like Ellen Burstyn speak to what she describes as his Method directing – making a suggestion and allowing the actor to run with it, frequently doing just one take. She recalls Max von Sydow, an avowed atheist, the man Friedkin says was the best actor in the world at the time, being completely blocked on his lines in the notorious exorcism scene and says that Friedkin remarked of the 100 things that he imagined could have gone wrong on the set that was literally number 100. He’s a believer in professionalism, not artistry. His films do not aspire to or reach the transcendent, like Antonioni, Fellini, even Argento, he says, as he hugs the maestro at a festival gathering. After high school in Chicago, attended by fellow director Philip Kaufman, he started out in the mailroom of a TV broadcaster and worked his way up at a time when you learned on the job because there was no film school. He shot an extraordinary death row documentary The People Vs. Paul Crump and wound up saving the man from execution. Initially he had no idea about directing feature films – until he saw Citizen Kane and recognised the power of the medium to go beneath the surface of human life. I can’t remember Orson Welles ever saving anyone from hanging but it’s documentary which is the central motivation in Friedkin’s career and it’s this directness that attracts viewers:  Coppola says that he would have explored metaphor if he’d made The Exorcist, whereas Friedkin engaged in it and showed it:  He doesn’t philosophise about evil. He shows you evil. And it’s interesting that when Friedkin tries to extrapolate messages, as in the opening interview, he falters. The French Connection speaks to his background in NYC and his familiarity with gangsters and police detectives (and Randy Jurgensen provides great background in his interview) but also his commitment to cinema veritéNobody can top Buster Keaton. He shot the Brooklyn car chase (done without permits) himself because it was so dangerous and he had discovered the camera operator was married with children; but more than that extraordinary instance of consideration, bloodymindedness and the art of filmmaking (and he says the only great chases in cinema were done by Buster Keaton, one of the handful of cinema masters he extols) people talk about the world of New York City in that film, just as they talk about the recognisable world he visualises in To Live and Die in LA.  That was when he also cast two virtual unknowns, Willem Dafoe and William Petersen, both of whom talk here and we are reminded that the director did something viewed then by critics as utterly unconventional and wrong – killing off the hero three quarters of the way through. He also portrayed the process of currency forgery with such accuracy it attracted the ire of various Government agencies. However it’s Sorcerer he says he’d like to be remembered by, if at all. He and screenwriter Walon Green took the novel behind the H. G. Clouzot (another of his heroes) film The Wages of Fear and using the basic premise reinvented it completely (as he says, they don’t say you’re remaking Hamlet). Francis Ford Coppola reminds us that in those days, when he was also making Apocalypse Now, If you wanted to show something extraordinary, you had to do something extraordinary. And photograph it. And we are watching the bridge scene in which the actors could have died and we realise we are actually watching a documentary. Roy Scheider returned from Connection in the lead which some find problematic and it may be a reason that the film suffered terrible commercial consequences – but then it was released when Star Wars was out. He’s brave. He fights. He’s got balls that clank. Even though he was not part of the Movie Brat generation he formed a company that funded Coppola’s The Conversation and there’s an amusing letter from him warning Coppola not to go over budget.  The masculine nature of his projects is effaced by interviews with Juno Temple (Killer Joe) and Gina Gershon (Bug) who both praise him not just for stripping off in sympathy with them on set but also for creating dimensional female roles. Gershon felt terrible during production but found out in a phonecall afterwards that he treated her the way he did in order to get her to give her great performance and he thought the world of her. Friedkin’s wife was the one who told her. In the mid-Seventies Friedkin realised that Fritz Lang was still alive and well and living in Hollywood and approached him for an interview. After Lang found out what Friedkin had made, he agreed and the fantastic result, Conversation With Fritz Lang is excerpted here, in which the master denies the greatness of his German output and claims to prefer his American films. Perhaps it is the association with Nazism that bothers him. As far as Friedkin’s politics are concerned, he himself denies his work is political to the delight of other commentators. Cruising attracted huge critical odium from the gay community but it is recalled that privately Friedkin was delighted by the controversy (and presumably the ensuing publicity for a film starring Al Pacino). Tarantino says that in the mid-Nineties he screened it for the mostly gay crew of a Broadway play he was appearing in and they were surprised and pleased by it. It exposed a world of S&M clubs immediately prior to the AIDS era that was not only long gone, it had barely been known by a lot of gays at the time and Friedkin had obtained access to shoot in one through the owner, a mobster acquaintance. Critic Stanley Blumenfeld likens his latterday output to that of the Japanese artists Friedkin collects – quick brushstrokes, brief lines. Direct communication.  It’s not as the title suggests uncut unless you include the bits that Friedkin himself would have left out – comments about shots, about coffee. And it’s certainly not a perfect documentary (how ironic). But it is a rather fascinating portrait of one of the more extraordinary and unapologetic filmmakers who is still in our midst if rarely making films nowadays, who recognises at this stage of his life that being a professional is the only thing, art is a happy byproduct. He contentedly drinks his mugs of black coffee in the Hollywood home that he shares with his wife, the first ever woman studio boss, Sherry Lansing, whom he happily says is, like his late mother, a saint. If you want to make a film you need ambition, skill and the grace of God. And the most important thing is the grace of God  MM#2,500