Happy 85th Birthday Ronald Harwood 9th November 2019!

Birthday greetings to that prolific and gifted playwright and screenwriter Ronald Harwood whose interest in the stage and World War 2 as well as the wider political world has gifted us with such profound work over the past six decades. A brilliant adapter of other people’s work also, his majestic achievement with The Pianist reminds us that he always gets to the heart of the matter. Happy birthday Mr Harwood!

Kalifornia (1993)

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What the hell did I know about California? For some people it was still a place of hopes and dreams, a chance to start over. Graduate journalism student Brian Kessler (David Duchovny) has published an article about serial killers that secures an offer for a book deal. He and his girlfriend Carrie Laughlin (Michelle Forbes), an avant garde photographer, decide to relocate to California in hopes of enriching their careers. The two plot their journey from Louisville, Kentucky to Los Angeles,planning to visit infamous murder sites along the way which Carrie can photograph for Brian’s book. Trouble is, they’re short of money so Brian posts a ride-share ad on campus. Psychopathic recent parolee Early Grayce (Brad Pitt) has just lost his job. His parole officer learns of this and comes to the trailer where Early lives with his naïve girlfriend waitress Adele Corners (Juliette Lewis). Early refuses the officer’s offer of a job as a janitor at the university, saying he wants to leave the state, but the officer pressures him into keeping his appointment for the job interview. When Early arrives at the campus, he sees the ride-share ad and calls Brian, who agrees to meet him the following day and the mismatched foursome take off cross-country one hour after Early has murdered his landlord. Carrie has immediate misgivings when she sees the white trash pair and becomes very scared when Early and Brian start drinking together and Brian becomes infatuated with guns … Tell me, big shot, how you gonna write a book about something you know nothing about? It’s a neat concept:  a guy obsessed with serial killers ends up sharing a ride with a serial killer and then becomes inured to the effects of that violent experience when it’s finally him or – him. It’s constructed as though this were the rite of passage for a writer of such true crimes giving him a taste for murder albeit the closing voiceover indicates he has learnt nothing because he feels nothing. So maybe we’re in the realm of unfulfilled masculinity – so much of this narrative is tied into sex and instinct. Perhaps it’s too self-satisfied, perhaps Pitt’s performance as the kinky white trailer trash is too eccentric, Lewis too retarded, Forbes too knowing, Duchovny too withdrawn. These are people whose paths would never ordinarily cross however they’re in a car together having to deal with each other. On the other hand it’s a cool piece of work with a kind of sociocultural commentary about how we are bumping up against people we disagree with on a daily basis, how some elitists have a kind of fascination for the going-nowhere working classes, how pure intellect is rarely a match for feral intuition and how serial killers can attain a celebrity that transcends mere notoriety into a form of acceptability because it is no longer possible to move us in a world where so much is abandoned and empty. It’s no accident that the finale takes place at Dreamland, the old nuclear testing site and fake town on the California-Nevada border. Originally written by Tim Metcalfe with Stephen Levy, this appears to have changed substantially in tone in development. Directed like a stylishly cool breeze by Dominic Sena in his feature debut. I’ll never know why Early Grayce became a killer. I don’t know why any of them did. When I looked into his eyes I felt nothing, nothing

Night of the Big Heat (1967)

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Aka Island of the Burning Damned/Island of the Burning Doomed. We must avoid injecting fear into an already dangerous situation. Novelist Jeff Callum (Patrick Allen) and his wife Frankie (Sarah Lawson) run a pub called The Swan on the island of Fara, on the English coast.  Jeff hires former lover Angela Roberts (Jane Merrow) as his secretary and she arrives in the middle of an unseasonal and stifling heatwave – it’s winter, yet unusual things are occurring with cars stalling and TVs blowing up and sheep are dying inexplicably. Scientist Godfrey Hanson (Christopher Lee) arrives and rents a room at The Swan, setting up motion sensor cameras and taking soil samples and Jeff confronts him about what might really be happening and discovers that extra-terrestrials are in their midst so it’s time to get local doctor Vernon Stone (Peter Cushing to lend assistance as the temperatures rise and everyone seems to be losing their mind and what on earth is down in the gravel pit? … If the heat goes on like this it could very likely drive us insane!  Adapted by Ronald Liles from John Lymington’s novel, this had previously been adapted for broadcast by ITV in their Play of the Week slot in 1960 and Doctor Who husband and wife screenwriting team Pip and Jane Baker were hired to do this rewrite. This Hammer Films iteration has the key players in the studio and is all the better for it: that alien protoplasm ain’t got nothing on these guys, living in a pressure cooker of sex and fear. It’s nice to see Patrick Allen – that terrifying voice that so dominates my childhood memories is actually quite the thesp:  hark at him explain to his wife what the deal is with the smouldering minx Angela:  I wanted her! I wanted her body! It was completely physical, I promise you! while Lee is his usual earnest self as the de rigeur scientist, completely rational for a change, with Cushing, as ever, battling evil.  Merrow is marvellous as the vamp, going crazy, like everyone, in the sweltering heat. Satisfying sci fi very well handled by Terence Fisher. He’s a peculiar chap – but he’s got guts

 

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.

 

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!

Stargate (1994)

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Give my regards to King Tut, asshole! In modern-day Egypt, hieroglyphics scholar Daniel Jackson (James Spader) teams up with retired US Army Col. Jack O’Neil (Kurt Russell)  on behalf of the military to unlock the code of a stone gate uncovered in 1928 which it transpires is an interstellar gateway to an ancient Egypt-like world in our universe. They arrive on planet Abydos ruled by the despotic alien sungod Ra (Jaye Davidson), who holds the key to the Earth travellers’ safe return. Now, in order to escape from their intergalactic purgatory, Jackson and O’Neil have to convince the planet’s people that Ra must be overthrown but to get back home Jackson has to realign the Stargate .I’m here in case you succeed. With a copy of Erich von Däniken’s Chariot of the Gods in one hand and a panoply of special effects in the other producer Mario Kassar and director Roland Emmerich delve into the world of ancient astronaut theory (for more of this, watch Ancient Aliens on The Hitler Channel). The references to Conan Doyle, Jules Verne and George Lucas are there and there’s the added virtue of a gung ho soldier grieving his child – who you gonna call? Kurt Russell, of course:  who better to stir up the natives into a revolution on a place trapped in Ancient-Egypt time? And the other half of this double act, Spader, romances ancient Sha’uri (Mili Avital) for good measure. Nutty and plausible for the first sixty-five minutes,  then it trundles into the realm of total absurdity with Davidson’s body-possessing alien posing as fey god act just a little de trop, as Diana Vreeland (or Celeste Holm) might have put it. Epic good fun. Written by Emmerich and Dean Devlin. There can be only one Ra

Count Yorga, Vampire (1970)

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Aka The Loves of Count Yorga, Vampire. Would you care now to see that which you don’t want to see? Conducting a seance at the home of his recently dead lover’s daughter Donna (Donna Anders), the suave Bulgarian emigré Count Yorga (Robert Quarry) is concealing a bloodthirsty secret at his secluded mansion. Unbeknownst to her husband Michael (producer Michael MacReady) and other guests, Donna succumbs to the vampire’s curse. Friends Paul (Michael Murphy) and Erica (Judith Lang) go to his house where they are eventually overcome – but not before enjoying a vigorous sex session in their VW camper van – and back at home Michael realises Donna is missing from their bed and he calls his friend Dr Jim Hayes (Roger Perry) a blood specialist and they undertake to rescue her from the man they believe is a vampire armed with broom handles and makeshift crucifixes … I’m the forty-seventh nut to report a vampire in the city in the past fourteen hours. Writer/director Bob Kelljan overcomes a low budget with a singularly stylish work which takes vampirism deadly seriously. From a nice overhead shot of a port in Southern California, where we presume this contemporary iteration of Count Dracula has entered the country in the manner of his predecessor at Whitby, we enter the suburban realm of a group of friends who just can’t behave themselves at a seance led by their suave guest. Once they figure out that Donna’s mom didn’t get pernicious anaemia by accident they reckon they’re onto something. And they think they can get the better of him. Thus begins a night of cat and mouse, but as he has to repeatedly tell them, vampires are more intelligent than humans. Long regarded as the epitome of the vampire cult movie, this has aged extremely well, as you would expect of the genus, with a really sincere performance by the witty Count. Its origins as a soft porn production are reflected in the undead lovelies who indulge an orgiastic bloodfeast with one unfortunate victim. The voiceover is by George Macready, father of producer and co-star Michael. If we do this we put our heads on the block

The Mephisto Waltz (1971)

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There’s no reason to be scared. A frustrated pianist who spent four years at Juilliard, music journalist Myles Clarkson (Alan Alda) is thrilled to interview virtuoso Duncan Ely (Curt Jurgens). Duncan, however, is terminally ill and not much interested in Myles until he observes that Myles’ hands are ideally suited for piano. Suddenly, he can’t get enough of his new friend and thinks he should perform; while his daughter Roxanne (Barbara Parkins) thinks Myles should act, and Myles’ wife, Paula (Jacqueline Bisset), who believes he has a great novel in him, becomes suspicious of Duncan’s intentions. Her suspicions grow when Duncan dies and Myles mysteriously becomes a virtuoso overnight... Hands like yours are one in a hundred thousand.  Adapted from Fred Mustard Stewart’s novel it’s easy to dismiss this as an unambiguous Faustian followup to Rosemary’s Baby but it’s better than that. Once-blacklisted screenwriter Ben Maddow does a fine job (on his final screenplay) in conveying the book’s deep sense of dread and Jurgens is terrifying as the man whose influence stretches beyond mere existence. It’s set in California in a change from the original New York location. No matter how lusciously lovely it looks (courtesy of William W. Spencer), it’s shot through with death and strangeness, odd setups, underpinned by Jerry Goldsmith’s haunting score (and a guy called Liszt) and highly effective performances, particularly by Bisset who is fantastic as the horrifyingly cuckolded wife, and by the imposingly scary soul-switching Satanist Jurgens. I feel unfaithful – he’s like three different men, says Bisset after having sex with the newly-transfused Alda.  Even Parkins impresses as the seductive daughter whose own father clearly loves her outside the usual limits. Unfortunately Alda is the weakest link and seems more like a lucky social climber. It remains a terrifying film, with glorious visual insinuation and eerie dream sequences, wonderfully directed by Paul Wendkos. The only feature production by legendary TV producer Quinn Martin.  Success makes you miserable, doesn’t it

La peau douce (1964)

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Aka Silken Skin/ Soft Skin. I’ve learned that men’s unhappiness arises from the inability to stay quietly in their own room. While flying to Lisbon, Portugal to give a lecture, writer and magazine editor Pierre Lachenay (Jean Desailly), encounters beautiful air stewardess Nicole (Françoise Dorléac) and winds up spending the night with her at the hotel where they both happen to be staying. What was intended to be a one-night stand becomes a tumultuous extramarital affair once he returns to Paris and his wife Franca (Nelly Benedetti) and little daughter Sabine (Sabine Haudepin) . Pierre tries to keep the affair secret but arranges a lecture trip to Reims which he thinks he can use as cover for their relationship but when his wife suspects him, she snaps and determines to enact terrible revenge … Ever take a good look at yourself? This passionate tale of adultery still stirs the emotions, firstly through the extraordinary performance of Dorléac (who used to be viewed as the more talented of those two famous French acting sisters, the younger being Catherine Deneuve) before her tragic demise. It’s heightened by an outrageously urgent and eloquent score by Georges Delerue and photographed with his usual limpid approach by Raoul Coutard, lending tenderness to the sexual attraction as it is complicated by the usual deceptions, occasionally tipping into farce. This guy cannot stop himself from doing the wrong thing at every juncture. Every car trip turns into an imperilled journey, planting the seeds of a wholly unnecessary tragic dénouement. A totally ordinary story is elevated to something like a thriller by staging, characterisation and pace. All the leads are tremendous:  Desailly is a wholly inadequate lover and husband, Dorléac a perfectly modern young woman, Benedetti an exquistely melodramatic woman scorned, as she sees it. An elegant disquisition on the unfairness of love, missed opportunities and the passing of youth as a tawdry and rather unmotivated love triangle falls apart. Written by director François Truffaut with Jean-Louis Richard (who has an uncredited role as a man harassing Franca in the street), this tale of amour fou is almost operatic in its pure conventionality and one ponders its morbid focus when one realises it was mostly shot at Truffaut’s own apartment with the suspenseful influence of Hitchcock fresh in his mind after a summer interviewing the great man for the classic tome, Hitchcock/Truffaut.  The ending is gobsmacking. Think of me