Less Than Zero (1987)

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Clay (Andrew McCarthy) is back in Los Angeles for Christmas following his first semester at college and finds that his ex-girlfriend Blair (Jami Gertz) is now using cocaine and his best friend Julian (Robert Downey Jr.) whom he found sleeping with Blair over Thanksgiving is a serious cokehead indebted to the tune of $50,000 to the nasty Rip (James Spader – frighteningly reasonable) who runs a rent boy ring and gets his creditors to service his clients. This portrait of life in the higher-earning echelons of LA is chilling. Bret Easton Ellis’ iconic novel is a talisman of the mid-late Eighties coming of age set and the icy precision of his affectless prose is inimitable. Once read, never forgotten. Harley Peyton’s screenplay is a fair adaptation but the casting lets this down – with the exception of Downey who is simply sensational as the tragic Julian, gifted with a record company for graduation by his father (Nicholas Pryor) and then simply dumped when he screws up.  This lovable loser’s mouth drools with the effects of his addiction when rehab doesn’t work and he spirals unhappily trying to bum money off his uncle to open a nightclub. Watch the scene when he talks to Clay’s little sister as though she’s a lover who’s pushing him away – knockout. The Beverly Hills scene with its horrible parents and their multiple marriages and awkward dinners with exes and stepchildren, making teenagers grow up too fast, is all too real.  While McCarthy and Gertz just don’t really work – McCarthy’s supposed to be a vaguely distanced observer but he doesn’t convey much beyond a bemused smile, Gertz looks confused and both look too old – the shooting style is cool and superficial, like the lives it critiques. Directed by Marek Kanievska.

Donnie Darko (2001)

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This came out right after 9/11 which was its misfortune. It has a rather extraordinary plane crash and it wasn’t that that made me relate to it entirely but it was a factor – one of my most vivid and disturbing dreams concerned a crash in my neighbourhood but that was in the aftermath of the Avianca crash on Long Island in 1990 and I remember afterwards reading in a column that nobody should eat bluefish for rather obvious reasons…. I digress. This begins with one of two songs by two of my favourite bands because there are two versions of the edit. So you see Jake Gyllenhaal cycling through his suburban neighbourhood either to Echo and the Bunnymen’s Killing Moon or INXS’s Never Tear Us Apart:  both forever songs, in my book. He’s a teen who’s off his meds and talks to Frank, a man dressed as a  giant rabbit in the bathroom mirror. Problem is, the rabbit can control him and as he searches for the meaning of life and his big sister (Maggie Gyllenhaal) bugs him and his little sister pursues her dancing ambition and everyone quarrels about voting for Michael Dukakis (because it’s 1988), he starts tampering with the water main flooding his school, a plane crashes into their house and he resents the motivational speaker (Patrick Swayze) who enters the students’ lives while the inspiring Graham Greene story The Destructors is being censored by the PTA.  He burns down the man’s house and the police find a stash of kiddie porn and arrest him. Donnie’s interest in time travel leads him to the former science teacher (Patience Cleveland) aka Grandma Death but his friendship with her leads the school bullies to follow him and she is run down – by Frank. Donnie shoots him.  When he returns to his house a vortex is forming and a plane is overhead and things go into reverse … and Donnie is in bed, just as he was 28 days earlier, when the story starts … Extraordinary, complex, nostalgic, blackly funny and startlingly true to teenage behaviour and perception and life in the burbs, I know there are websites dedicated to explaining this but I don’t care about that. Just watch it. And wonder how Richard Kelly could possibly make anything this good again. Stunning.

The Beguiled (2017)

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You vengeful bitches! I had high hopes for Sofia Coppola’s take on the Don Siegel Southern Gothic movie that made such a difference to our perception of Clint Eastwood way back when. Coppola has created such an interesting catalogue of films that are female-centred and immediately recognisable from their diffused palettes, lens flare, sense of mystery,soundtracks, alienation from family and the ultimate unknowability of teenaged girls. Colin Farrell plays Corporal John McBurney, the Irish soldier of fortune fighting for the North lying wounded in the woods near Martha Farnsworth’s boarding school for young ladies in deepest Louisiana when he is found by little girl Amy (Oona Laurence) on her daily mushroom-picking trip. She drags him back to the almost derelict building and the decision is made not to report him to the Confederates passing through the area despite the objections of staunch loyalist Jane (Angourie Rice, who was so great in The Nice Guys). There are only five students and the eldest is Alicia (Elle Fanning) and their teacher Edwina Dabney (Kirsten Dunst) is the woman most obviously hot to trot – sad and clearly desperate for a man and a reason for escape. Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) tends to McBurney while he is unconscious and there are a lot of shots of water pooling in the cavities of his neck and abdomen. His objectification is writ large by the simple expedient of not having the camera include his face. Farnsworth admits to having had a man before the war when McBurney asks but as each of the girls enters his room to get a look at him and steal a kiss (a foxy Fanning) he realises he can play them off against each other. He learns to walk again and helps out, cutting wood and generally being the maintenance man. But all the while he has become the women’s fantasy. The problems really begin when each of them finds out what he is doing with the others. When Edwina invites him to her room after a particularly excruciating dinner and dance in this Gothic manse, she finds him having sex instead with Carol and takes terrible revenge …. And Farnsworth aims at keeping him there forever. There is something not quite right about the film. The control and the tone never really articulate the plot’s inherent collective madness, something that was so brutally effective in the earlier adaptation. The photography doesn’t come close to the beauty of Bruce Surtees’ work and that is surprising given Coppola’s customary attention to appearances (and the consequently unfortunate effect on the way Kidman appears). The relative containment of the story to the building doesn’t really work since so many of the shots are repetitive and one has the paradoxical desire to see more of the outdoors. Coppola has dropped some of the previous film’s elements – the black servant, the flashbacks to Farnsworth’s incestuous relationship with her brother – and this vacuum is not replaced with enough plot to sustain the story’s mordantly black tone. The performances are uniformly good and Dunst and Fanning are obviously back working again with Coppola. (And if you still haven’t watched Marie Antoinette go look at it now to watch Dunst give a complete performance as the child bride.) Farrell gives a good account of himself as a man who can’t believe his good luck even if it’s quite disconcerting to hear him speaking in an Irish accent. The young kids are very good in their roles and while Dunst’s part is not written especially well the sex scene with her buttons spilling over the floor is one of the best things in the film. Fanning is just a little too odd – but she has definitely grown up since Somewhere. Laurence is especially good as the little girl who stands up for McBurney right up until he hurts her little turtle Henry. The revenge is all too clearly telegraphed in a way that it wasn’t in the earlier film and that is the ultimate disappointment:  the staircase scene is thrown away.  There are some nice touches – the use of jewellery (Coppola loves fetishising sparkly objects) and costume and some Hitchcockian shots of the women’s hairstyles from behind. But it can’t make up for the lack of real tension. There is good use of music – that’s Mr Coppola’s band Phoenix reinterpreting Monteverdi’s Magnificat on the soundtrack and there’s apposite use of Stephen Foster’s song Virginia Belle.  Overall however this just doesn’t work the way you want it to do and despite its relatively short length (94 minutes) for a contemporary film it has its longeurs. Coppola adapted the original screenplay by Albert Maltz and Irene Kamp, a woman who was writing pseudonymously as ‘Grimes Grice’ which is the name mysteriously used on the film’s credits. Despite my reservations about this,  I find Coppola a fascinating – even beguiling! – director and I’ve reviewed Fiona Handyside’s new book about her in the latest issue of Offscreen which you can find here:  http://offscreen.com/view/sofia-coppola-a-cinema-of-girlhood.

La Dolce Vita (1960)

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In the summer of 1958 several layers of Roman society collided in the flashing lightbulbs of celebrity, with Hollywood actors, aristocrats, drug dealers, designers, artists, writers, prostitutes, journalists and street photographers engaging in salacious conflicts that kept several scandal rags going with outrageous tales of a demimonde that seemed to congregate around the Via Veneto. Federico Fellini was taking note. A photograph of Anita Ekberg frolicking in the Trevi Fountain seemed to encapsulate the scene and a story took root in his brain. Along with Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli, Brunello Rondi and some uncredited assistance from Pier Paolo Pasolin, he came up with the script that would define the time and the place like no other. Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastroianni) is the urbane gossip journalist who secretly hankers after the life of his intellectual friend Steiner (Alain Cuny, playing a character loosely based on Cesare Pavese) but cannot cease his lifestyle of instant gratification. The opening shot is stunning:  a helicopter is taking a statue of Christ across a football field surrounded by ancient ruins, and chased by another helicopter. All at once the image shows us Rome ancient, imperial and modern, and God is leaving the city, opening up a world of self-indulgence. Marcello is in the second chopper and dallies with some beauties sunbathing on a roof. Right there we have some very economical socio-cultural analysis about contemporary values.  38 minutes in, the film’s raison d’etre occurs:  Fellini re-stages the Ekberg image, starring Ekberg herself. Surely this is the ultimate post-modern shot in cinema. This is a very glamorous film about incredible people in a state of pure decadence. It was much criticised at local level but Fellini had tapped into fascism’s true expression – the cultivation of image above meaning, the use of culture to promote an antithetical belief system, the failure of humanity, mob rule. Popular culture was the vehicle through which fascism was transmitted. Fellini was working as a caricaturist during Mussolini’s alliance with the Nazis, he was involved with several of the neorealist classics made right after the war and he had already made a couple of classic films:  his concept of reality did not mean the subtraction of meaning. Christening the scattini (street photographers) Paparazzo was only the start of it. He understood the power of voyeurism. Marcello’s disenchantment as he pursues his personal satyricon is groundbreaking and inimitable. The role changed Mastroianni, as he admitted. You cannot walk through Rome and not see it as it is here – ironically, Fellini recreated most of it at Cinecitta (a Mussolini factory that lured so many American filmmakers to free up their frozen profits and enjoy the sweet life):  that’s how I discovered the real Via Veneto is very hilly.  Rome is Fellini, Fellini is Rome. And as for Nino Rota’s score! As Jonathan Jones said some years ago, Fellini thought of everything first. We are still catching up. Simply great.

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The Hustler (1961)

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What’s so great about the film that made Paul Newman a superstar? This grim tale of Fast Eddie Felson the up and coming pool shark and his manager/nemesis Bert Gordon (the vicious George C. Scott is well cast) who wants to take the mantle of Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason) at Ames Billiards Parlor in NYC is an enduring classic rooted in 50s social realism.  When Eddie loses face and money he retreats to the railway station locker room and cafe and finds another waif, the apparently confident but alcoholic Sarah (Piper Laurie) who like him is an accident waiting to happen. Stunningly designed by Harry Horner and shot by Eugene Schufftan, this is a story of people enclosed by their chosen occupations. The film’s very texture is pure gloom. Newman is simply great as the guy who dares to return to the pool hall even after he’s had his thumbs broken and confidence shattered:  not everyone loves pool sharks.  For most of the film the only light is coming from his eyes. Gleason is superb as the laconic competition and Scott is as evil as you’d expect. Laurie is heartbreaking as the price of Eddie’s ambition. This earned a fistful of Oscar nominations and ended up with two wins (for Horner and Schufftan). It was adapted from Walter Tevis’ story by Sydney Carroll and director Robert Rossen.  Rossen has a complex reputation. He was a man whose actions created a lot of ill-feeling on film sets. He was a former blacklistee (named by colleagues) who himself became a namer of names to HUAC after a second go-round in order to work again. But this comeback film drew upon his own experiences with its driven, failing, vicious, deadly characters. He grew up a poor Russian Jew in New York and did whatever he could to earn a buck. Desire and ambition were at the core of his being. He was a longtime member of the Communist Party when Communists played such a huge role in New York theatre and his screenplays in the 30s and 40s were concerned with society and poverty and getting out. The work certainly suited the studios who employed him at the time:  he got John Garfield to give a truly brilliant performance in boxing classic Body and Soul.  Unlike his fellow director Elia Kazan, he could never mend those bridges after the HUAC hearings.  His next film, Lilith, would be his last, reportedly after a contentious relationship with star Warren Beatty:  Lilith, after all, was a psychological study of a strong (if probably psychotic) woman, and it’s a strange piece of work that simply shines with the alluring lustre of Jean Seberg and the emotion of the truly felt. But after that experience he stated that if he never made another film he had The Hustler to his credit. It is a tragic story, well told. Rossen died aged 57 in 1966.

Tracks (2013)

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I just want to be by myself. If you read books like The Heroine’s Journey you’ll learn that what every girl really needs at some point is some time by herself – a separation of sorts, from the noise, from the world, from the patriarchal expectations …. all that jazz. And in 1977 Australian Robyn Davidson had just about enough of all the rubbish in life and decided to trek 1,700 miles from Alice Springs via Ayers Rock and the Western Desert to the Ocean – with Diggity the dog and Dookie, Bob, Sally and Baby Goliath, four camels that she trained and befriended. The problem of financing necessitated a sponsor and that came in the form of National Geographic magazine which sent freelance photographer Rick Smolan to shoot the story and he met up with her once a month, in various states of disrepair and anguish. Mia Wasikowska has the role of her life, encountering her real self, solitude, loneliness and loss. It’s a remarkable, demanding performance in this adaptation by Marion Nelson of Davidson’s memoir, which took 25 years to get to the big screen after many false starts. Adam Driver is the unfortunate guy whose expressions of concern for his occasional travelling companion are so regularly rebuffed while the inevitable publicity brings unwelcome meetings with an inquisitive public and there’s an especially amusing incident when Robyn’s mentor Mr Eddie (Rolley Mintuma) scares them off with a presumably typical Aboriginal attitude. This is a beautifully crafted film, memorably shot and simply bewitching, with layers of meaning about personhood, the environment and the ecology of animal and human friendship. One of my favourite films of 2013. Directed by John Curran.

Jaws (1975)

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Ibsen by way of a Peter Benchley bestseller and an adventurous and gifted director called Steven Spielberg. I got caught up in this again late last night and was gripped, as ever, by this visceral tale of beachside terror which hasn’t aged a day and in many respects remains my favourite Spielberg movie. There is so much to relish. The atmosphere, aided immeasurably by John Williams’ stunningly suggestive score – which was the soundtrack in the bathroom of the late lamented Museum of the Moving Image in London – utterly terrifying!. The performances:  who doesn’t love Richard Dreyfuss as the marine biologist? Roy Scheider as the seaside town police chief who’s scarified of water? Robert Shaw as the drunken shark hunting Captain Quint? And those hellishly cute kids. And what about the titles sequence? There’s the politics of the summer season and the mayor who doesn’t want word to get out. The anger of the bereaved mother. The bloodied water and beach toys. The track-zoom of realisation. The clear storytelling. White sharks got a bad press out of this epic battle but there has rarely been a better exploration of the ecology of man and beast. Quite literally sensational. Classic, brilliant, the original of the species. Written by Benchley and Carl Gottlieb, with a little assist from Spielberg, Howard Sackler, Matthew Robbins and Hal Barwood, and John Milius.

Wonder Boys (2000)

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Michael Chabon’s droll campus novel of dejected one hit wonder creative writing professor Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas) gets a funny and tender adaptation from the late Curtis Hanson and writer Steve Kloves. James Leer (Tobey Maguire) is the weird and ubertalented student whose work is stupendously impressive so when agent Terry Crabtree (Robert Downey Jr) arrives at a college event for aspiring authors he immediately transfers his affection from his transvestitite companion to this new kid on the block and a raucous weekend on and off campus ensues. At a party given by the Chancellor Sara Gaskell (Frances McDormand) – who happens to be Grady’s mistress – and her husband Walter (Richard Thomas) a valuable piece of Marilyn Monroe memorabilia is stolen,  the family dog is shot and the body hidden in a trunk, and tension rattles when Sara reveals she’s pregnant by Grady, whose wife has taken off to her parents’. Grady thinks James is a suicide risk so keeps him with him – along with the dead dog. It eventually dawns on him that James is a compulsive liar and a total liability. His fellow student Hannah (Katie Holmes) has a thing for Grady but he’s not into her which makes life at his house tricky – she’s renting a room there. Walter sends the police for James when he figures where the MM goods have gone. What happens to Grady’s new book manuscript and the car is just cringeworthy … This is so great in every department – the very texture of the emotions is in every gesture and expression, something that occurs when writing, performance and staging are in perfect sync. Hilarious, compassionate and endlessly watchable. And for anyone looking to complete their picture collection of Michael Douglas’ abject masculinity on film, there’s the image of him standing on the porch in a woman’s dressing gown – something to knock that Basic Instinct v-neck into a cocked hat. Cherishable.

Nightcrawler (2014)

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What a character Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is – petty thief turned news stringer, a hollowed out husk of a ghoul, shooting pictures of the grisliest crime scenes in LA, an autodidact with a taste for death trying to impress a news director (Rene Russo) on the vampire shift competing with all the other TV outlets in the area. This modern day Taxi Driver goes even further in Dan Gilroy’s screenplay, providing a window into the colluding audience’s bloodlust for murder and suffering. The scene-setting is extraordinary, the performances utterly committed and brilliant. Compelling, horrible, wonderful and probably a modern classic.

The Shining (1980)

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In the bigger scheme of things I have no idea what this film is about and I don’t know anyone who does. It started as an adaptation of Stephen King’s horror novel but it evolved into something he disliked intensely.  It boasts a key performance in Jack Nicholson’s career – in which those eyebrows are utilised to express something truly demonic and he launched a million caricatures not least when he hymned Johnny Carson.  The bones of King’s novel are here – wannabe writer Jack Torrance decamps with wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and little son Danny (Danny Lloyd) to the Overlook Hotel in the Colorado mountains to act as caretaker in the off season, hoping to overcome writer’s block. His son has psychic premonitions, possessed by the building itself, which however do not manage to overwhelm him and he shares their secrets with chef Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) with whom he communicates telepathically. Then Jack senses the hotel’s secrets – it’s built on a Native American burial ground – and he starts to lose his mind as we begin to connect the dots with a party that took place in 1921 and a photograph …  What happens here is not as important as how it looks.  Stanley Kubrick and co-writer Diane Johnson remove all the tropes that characterise the haunted house novel and we are left with overlit flatness and unsaturated colours that repeat and repeat and create their own rhythm. There are images that sear themselves on your brain:  the elevator pouring blood into those endless corridors that get longer and longer as Danny cycles up and down the hotel;  the twin Grady girls; the bar that suddenly opens up;  the nubile young woman who turns into an old crone; Wendy finding out what Jack’s been typing for months and months on those sheaves of paper;  Danny’s voice, growling red rum, red rum;  and Jack hacking through the bathroom door with an ax as Wendy cowers; Jack killing Dick, whose return to the hotel is because he senses that Danny needs him; the maze filling with snow as Danny tries to escape his lunatic father. Kubrick’s authorial vision produces something very odd and compelling and against the notion of the traditional horror film, perhaps minus all those strange theories promulgated by the documentary Room 237 which has a major preoccupation with presumed spatial discrepancies in the building’s layout. This is notable for Garret Brown’s use of the Steadicam, another instance of Kubrick’s obsession with using all the then-new technology to create powerful visuals. This production may have arisen from the master’s deep need to make a commercial hit after the failure of the beautiful Barry Lyndon, but one thing’s for sure about this ghost story like no other – once seen, never forgotten. Here’s Johnny!