Basic Instinct (1992)

 

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I think she’s the fuck of the century.  Paul Verhoeven’s film was notorious even prior to release – 25 years ago! – when word of the highly sexualised story got out.  Then it caused an uproar with a shot of Sharon Stone uncrossing her legs:  she’s not wearing any underwear. And the gay community in San Francisco in particular (where it’s set) didn’t like the portrayal of a psychopathic bisexual writer Catherine Tramell (Stone) – albeit we don’t know if it’s her, or her former and slighted lover, police psychiatrist Beth Garner (Jeanne Tripplehorn), who’s the murderess in this tricky, explicit neo-noir. That sub-genre really had a moment in the 90s, with this and the films of John Dahl – remember Linda Fiorentino in The Last Seduction?! Wow. Stone goes all-out here as the millionaire authoress whose books have a basis in true crime. Michael Douglas is the controversial ‘shooter’ detective Nick Curran who’s assigned to investigate the violent death of an old rock star – a murder we see in the opening scenes, bloody, sexy and ending with an ice pick applied to his neck. It’s the plot of one of Catherine Tramell’s lurid thrillers – she writes them under the surname Woolf.  Everything points to her being the guilty party. Now she wants to study him too. He got his nickname after accidentally killing tourists while he was high on cocaine. Catherine hangs out with jealous girlfriend Roxy and an old woman called Hazel Dobkins. Both of them have an interesting past. After Nick avoids being killed by Roxy when she sees him and Catherine having sex, he finds out she killed a bunch of kids when she was 15. And Hazel?  She murdered her children and husband back in the 50s. The fact that she’s played by Dorothy Malone gives you the meta-picture here:  this is practically a dissertation on the Hollywood blonde, a Hitchcock film with extra sex. Nick’s also been involved with the police psychiatrist who it turns out knows Catherine too, from when they went to college together a decade earlier.  And they may have had a relationship. This knotty tale of seduction, deception, copycat killing and betrayal leads cleverly to two very clear – and alternate – conclusions. It’s wrapped in extraordinarily beautiful and brutal imagery and the narrative ambiguity merely compounds its legend. Written by Joe Eszterhas in 13 days it earned him a record-breaking $3 million.  Yet as he stated so lucidly in his memoir, he is a militant screenwriter-auteur and the most memorable bit of the film was shot without his knowledge – and apparently Stone’s. Interpret this how you will. Some people might say that the real crime here is one against fashion – Douglas’ v-neck at the club is really something. Stone is stunning: she’s something else!

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London Town (2016)

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This is a strange one – a coming of age story set against a few songs and performances by The Clash and a couple of run-ins with the iconic singer/guitarist Joe Strummer, a man who inhabited several different musical incarnations but whose major persona was forged in the late Seventies against a maelstrom of sociocultural chaos. Shay (Daniel Huttlestone) is from a broken family with dad Dougray Scott running a music shop and driving a taxi by night to support him and his little sister. Mum Natascha McElhone has run off to live in a squat with Tom Hughes and some other handsome alternatives to find herself on the punk scene. Shay meets Vivienne (Nell Williams) a cool punkette scenester who introduces him to The Clash but when his dad has an accident moving a piano which hospitalises him, Shay has to man up, run the house and the gauntlet of debt collectors. With Vivienne’s help he drags up to take over his dad’s taxi runs and takes Joe Strummer (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) home one night.  Strummer serves as a kind of Jiminy Cricket or even Humphrey Bogart a la Play it Again, Sam but there is no real reason for him to be in this story and the conclusion is unbelievably low-key considering the potential in a narrative which sees real-life footage of an Anti-Nazi concert, with Rhys Meyers doing his trademark immersive performance (he’s already portrayed Bowie and Elvis with some success). Directed by Derrick Borte from a screenplay by Matt Brown. London was definitely not calling this one with neither story strand properly developed. The only real attraction is to hear The Clash originals and some of their songs reworked (even anachronistically). How odd.

Paint Your Wagon (1969)

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As a small child I loved hearing a single my dad had called Wand’rin’ Star with no clue that it came from a musical comedy western starring Lee Marvin. This tale of gold claims in northern California back in the day was destroyed by critics – see a bandwagon, jump on it, seems to me. Yet it’s a wildly enjoyable story of Ben Rumson (Marvin) rescuing Pardner (Clint Eastwood) and they end up setting up home together with Mormon refugee Jean Seberg in No-Name City:  population male. After escorting French prostitutes and setting up a whorehouse to establish the place as a boom town, they realise they could get rich from the gold dust falling through the cracks of the town’s buildings so they set about digging a tunnel …Paddy Chayefsky adapted the 1951 Lerner and Loewe stage hit and it had several new songs written by Andre Previn to augment the score. It was directed – surprisingly – by Josh Logan. The only real singer in the cast is Harve Presnell as Rotten Luck Willie but that’s not to say that Eastwood’s I Talk to the Trees isn’t memorable! Seberg fell hard for Eastwood on the location shoot and ended her marriage in the belief that they were a serious couple. When they moved to LA for the studio scenes he acted like he didn’t know her. But as far as this is concerned, Marvin is the whole show.

The Last Detail (1973)

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I am the motherfucking shore patrol! Jack Nicholson was one of the biggest stars of the 70s after Easy Rider and this adaptation of Darryl Ponicsan’s terrific novel is one of the key buddy movies of the period. Nicholson plays Billy ‘Badass’ Buddusky, Signalman First Class who’s awaiting orders at Norfolk naval base with Richard ‘Mule’ Mulhall (Otis Young) when they are directed to escort young Seaman Larry Meadows (Randy Quaid) to prison in Maine in the depths of winter.  He tried to steal $40 from a charity collection box – and the problem is it’s a favourite of his commanding officer’s wife so he’s got eight years for his efforts.  They set out on a Bon Voyage tour of the north east, getting into all sorts of scrapes and seeing the virginal Larry’s miserable home in Philadelphia en route.  Screenwriter Robert Towne, working for the first (but not the last) time with director Hal Ashby radically altered Ponicsan’s Camus-loving protagonist with his beyond-beautiful wife and recast him as a more ultimately compromised man, adding him to the gallery of unformed underachievers that populates his screenplays:  J.J. Gittes in Chinatown, George Roundy in Shampoo, Mac in Tequila Sunrise.  All of these men are compromised in their need for the means to survive. Of these characters, it could be said that Buddusky (certainly in Towne’s interpretation of the original character as conceived by Ponicsan) is actually the least tragic (he does not succumb to the fate administered in Ponicsan’s novel, thereby rendering the title meaningless!), the most pragmatic – and the most well-adjusted. Towne’s interpretation of Buddusky aligns him in the vanguard of New Hollywood in its politicised, anti-authoritarian heyday.  While his work on the film was undoubtedly influenced by his producer (Gerald Ayres) and director (particularly, it seems, by Ashby), he wrote it with Nicholson in mind and it copperfastened his position as upcoming screenwriter in the early Seventies.  Nicholson’s casting also helped get the film made – the original draft screenplay had ‘342 fucks.’ (There were 65 in the final release.) However Towne had also envisioned the film being cast with Rupert Crosse who died before it got the greenlight so the spotlight of the film now shifted more completely to Nicholson, and the script’s emphasis was therefore changed: Nicholson simply did not have the same kind of relationship with Otis Young, Crosse’s replacement. It was now truly a star vehicle. Meadows was played by Texan newcomer Randy Quaid, who towered over Nicholson, lending even more comedy to the situation. (John Travolta made it to the last two but it was Quaid’s height which lent his character even more poignancy.) It took Nicholson’s winning the Best Actor award at Cannes to get Columbia to finally release the film which was a long time in the editing room. Nicholson still regards it as his best role – Chinatown notwithstanding! Ribald, profane, oddly touching and screamingly funny, this is a tonally perfect comic drama and one you won’t forget in a hurry. For more on it and the significance of Nicholson’s work with his greatest collaborator, screenwriter Robert Towne, you can read my book ChinaTowne:  https://www.amazon.co.uk/ChinaTowne-Elaine-Lennon-ebook/dp/B01KCL3YXQ/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1489670058&sr=8-1&keywords=elaine+lennon.

The Object of My Affection (1998)

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This adaptation of Stephen McCauley’s novel (by playwright Wendy Wasserstein) has impeccable theatrical credentials, as it is directed by Nicholas Hytner, but also has crossover appeal because of the crucial casting of TV star Jennifer Aniston and visiting Friends regular Paul Rudd. This romcom with a difference – because the titular object is a gay man – touches so many contemporary hot button topics:  alternative families, LGBTQ lifestyles, single motherhood, class, social status – and does so with a light-ish style, in quite a long comic/dramatic narrative that allows for decent character exposition and actual conversations. Aniston is the social worker stepsister of Allison Janney, who’s married to a hot literary agent, Alan Alda. Their daughter attends a private school where the terrific young first grade teacher Paul Rudd runs a great musical production every year. He winds up at one of their dinner parties where fellow invitee Aniston unwittingly reveals to him that his gay lover Tim Daly wants him out of their apartment. So she rents him a room at her place … and falls for him while she’s pregnant with her laywer boyfriend’s baby. She thinks she and Rudd can raise her baby together. Trouble is, his ex wants him back, then he falls for a gay mentor’s own roommate, and the baby is on the way, while the lawyer (John Pankow) himself finds love elsewhere after being shut out for so long. A lot like life, with a good feeling for how people really are and the playing is superb with Nigel Hawthorne a particular joy as a wise old queen who gently asks Aniston at Thanksgiving Dinner what will happen when all her male homosexual friends disappear. For fag hags everywhere!

T2 Trainspotting (2017)

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You’re a tourist in your own youth. That’s how I felt too, when I sat down in an empty cinema for this – a far cry from the wild reaction that I expressed and experienced when the Godhead of Nineties movies made its debut. Wow! What a rush that was! Twenty years ago. Which is the real shocker. And age is what this is all about – age and betrayal and memory (or nostalgia) and payback. Renton is back – after making away with all that dosh in London. Sickboy – call him Simon now – ain’t too happy and beats him up. He rescues tragic Spud from certain death. Franco’s just had himself stabbed in prison so he can escape and lure his teenage son away from hotel management and into a life of crime … Revenge? Yes, please. There’s tragedy, fun and kickbacks to spare in this blackly comic outing with portions of Porno mixed up with a narrative carved from the original novel and several flashbacks to the old action and new-old footage of the guys as kids. Edinburgh like the rest of the British Isles is now afloat in Eastern European whores, one of whom has her claws into Simon but whom Renton fancies. Then there’s a scheme to set up Simon’s pub as a rival brothel to a chain of ‘saunas’ which invites interest from the proprietor. And in between bizarre music videos – check out Your Dad’s Best Friend by Rubberbandits! – a hilarious excursion picking pockets at a Loyalist club and digressions on George Best at Hibs, the rhythm section of director Danny Boyle, writer John Hodge and the superb cast (with the obvious exception of Tommy) is reassembled with a sense of style and a closing of the book, as it were. Spud gets a great storyline and there’s a nod to his precursor when Irvine Welsh turns up as chief car booster. Stick to the day job, dude. And there’s a brilliant payoff with a toilet bowl. Whew, it’s okay then. All is right with the world. Choose this.

I Capture the Castle (2003)

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Dodie Smith’s classic 1930s coming of age story gets a beautiful treatment in this adaptation by Heidi Thomas, directed by Tim Fywell. Romola Garai is the seventeen-year old Cassandra Mortmain, daughter of the desiccated formerly successful novelist, a cadaverous James (Bill Nighy) who has been blocked for twelve years. He’s married to dedicated nudist and avant garde artist Topaz (Tara Fitzgerald), his second wife. He served time in prison for attacking Cassandra’s mother with a cake knife. They live in ungenteel poverty in a rented castle which is in a state of terrific decay with a beautiful sister Rose (Rose Byrne) and young brother Thomas. The gorgeous farmhand next door Stephen (Henry Cavill) loves Cassandra but she only has eyes for American Simon (Henry  Thomas) who inherits the whole property of which the castle serves a part; while Simon falls for Rose. Simon’s brother Neil (Marc Blucas) and Cassandra confide in each other … and while superficial romance proceeds and social niceties are observed, and a forthcoming marriage might save them all, the principal relationships fall apart and Cassandra tries to fix everything while losing the man she really loves. Fantastically observed and – it has to be said – captivating – adaptation, with spot-on performances all round. Look fast for Dolly Wells as a horrible saleswoman.

The Stepford Wives (1975)

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This starts smartly, although you don’t realise it until the film is over. Hip photographer Joanna (Katharine Ross) is leaving her NYC apartment because her hubby Peter Masterson insists Connecticut is a better place to raise their family. She looks across the street from the station wagon and spots a guy lugging a mannequin over a zebra crossing. She takes a snap. Talk about semaphore!  She is befriended by cooler-than-thou neighbour the fabulous Bobbie (Paula Prentiss) and then starts figuring out that all the other passive women who enjoy screaming orgasms with their unprepossessing husbands are like clones of each other and there’s something sinister going on at the Men’s Club, which her husband has eagerly joined. Then Bobbie changes. Completely … Ira Levin’s stunning satire of modern marriage was inspired by his divorce, his resultant anger at the women’s movement and a visit to Disney’s Hall of Presidents, a model for fembots everywhere. William Goldman did the screenplay but wouldn’t do another draft for director Bryan Forbes, who had employed his own wife, the lovely Nanette Newman, in a supporting role. Supposedly this had caused a costuming change across the female ensemble. So writer/director/novelist/actor Forbes took a pass himself and this movie simply improves upon each viewing. Look at the clever cinematography:  when that family car enters Stepford we view it from – a graveyard! Brilliantly photographed by Owen Roizman, this is the look of US burbs forever. Great, scary fun and the women are fantastic! And they’re everywhere!

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969)

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Comedian turned screenwriter (I Love You Alice B. Toklas) Paul Mazursky spent a weekend at the Esalen Institute with his wife and wound up writing a five-page treatment with Larry Tucker (they wrote the pilot for The Monkees) about a filmmaker and his wife whose lives are changed by just such an experience and what happens between them and their friends when they put what they’ve learned there into practice. This elegant satire of New Age mores, the counterculture and late Sixties open-mindedness hasn’t lost its power, its humour or indeed its touching qualities. The casting is everything:  Natalie Wood and Robert Culp as the gullible couple; and Elliott Gould and Dyan Cannon as their friends who suffer their own psychological crises as a result of too much information, are all fantastic;  it’s impossible to pick between them since each conveys the truth of the situation in compelling fashion.  Each performs a perfect mix of comedy and drama, specific, controlled and authentic. There are some truly stomach-churning scenes of oversharing. What a directing debut for Mazursky! And it all ends in highly ironic fashion to the sounds of Jackie DeShannon warbling What The World Needs Now is Love!

All That Heaven Allows (1955)

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The films of director Douglas Sirk were regarded as ‘women’s pictures’ and weren’t properly re-evaluated as satires of class until the late Sixties:  never mind that, when I was 13 and saw this on TV all I knew was it was one of the most spectacular movies I’d ever seen and Rock Hudson was a hunk. All true. Staid widowed Jane Wyman is wooed by the younger man who cuts those gorgeous birches in the garden and she’s never given him a second thought – until they strike up a conversation one day and this mother of two obnoxious college students finds herself being romanced. The vicious country club set don’t like it but she finds a new way of being, amongst him and his offbeat friends, who have to explain to her how war has affected men like him and getting back to the land and being true to yourself and not your twinset is actually a good idea. It’s Walden versus Eisenhower. All hell breaks loose when the kids find out and Jane is given a TV set to distract herself during the lonely Christmas vacation … Stunning exploration of womanhood by a director at the height of his powers with images you will never forget (by Russell Metty) of the changing seasons in the life of a woman who has to find her own way, for herself. Screenplay by Peggy Fenwick from a story by Edna Lee and Harry Lee and produced by Ross Hunter, who had put Hudson and Wyman together in the previous year’s Universal smash, Magnificent Obsession, with the same director. For that desert island.