The Company You Keep (2012)

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We all died. Some of us came back. Decades after an ill-fated robbery in which an innocent man was killed, a former member of the Weather Underground Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon) is on her way to turn herself in to authorities when the FBI arrest her at a gas station after her phone is tapped. While covering the story and digging around, reporter Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf) discovers that recently widowed human rights lawyer Jim Grant (Robert Redford) was also a member of that particular group and is really a man called Nick Sloan since the real Jim Grant died in 1979. Sloan slips by the FBI led by Cornelius (Terrence Howard) who are following him when he goes on the run, from Albany through the Midwest and beyond, hoping to track down his former lover, Mimi (Julie Christie), who’s still underground and fighting for the cause. He leaves his young daughter Isabel (Jackie Evancho) with his doctor brother Daniel (Chris Cooper) and his wife. Meanwhile, Ben encounters a police officer Henry Osborne (Brendan Gleeson) who knew Nick back in the day and meets his his adult daughter Rebecca (Britt Marling) who is a lot older than she initially seems and Ben figures she is somehow connected to Mimi and Nick ... Everybody knew somebody who was going over or somebody who wasn’t coming back.  Adapted by Lem Dobbs from the titular 2003 novel by Neil Gordon, Robert Redford directed and produced this film which of course nods to that period in his own life when he was politically attuned and making films which spoke to the zeitgeist. Partly it’s about the state of journalism and Ben’s role of the ambitious journo who isn’t looking beyond the headlines, as Nick/Jim declares to him, Well that pretty much sums up why journalism is dead. It’s a pivotal statement because this is all about ethics – Sharon’s self-justifying, his hiding away, the times in which people live and endure their families being destroyed by violence, homegrown or otherwise (and millennial corruption is everywhere evident as Ben gets information with the passing of greenbacks to everyone he encounters). LaBeouf is good as the questing young writer – and looking at his screen career perhaps it’s the company he keeps that improves his impact because he’s surrounded by a great ensemble doing very fine work, including Nick Nolte who shows up as another member of the group. This is a serious work about a complex time which clarifies why historical crimes demand more than cursory payback and jail time. It’s well-paced, a drama of conscience, guilt and retribution. Now that’s context. They did unforgivable things but you’ve got to admire the commitment.

 

 

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Under the Silver Lake (2018)

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Everything you ever hoped for, everything you ever dreamed of being a part of, is a fabrication. Sam (Andrew Garfield) is a disenchanted 33-year-old who discovers a mysterious woman, Sarah (Riley Keough) frolicking in his apartment’s swimming pool.  He befriends her little bichon frisé dog Coca Cola. She has a drink with him and they watch How to Marry a Millionaire in the apartment she shares with two other women.  Her disappearance coincides with that of billionaire Jefferson Sevence (Chris Gann) whose body is eventually found with Sarah’s. Sam embarks on a surreal quest across Los Angeles to decode the secret behind her disappearance, leading him into the murkiest depths of mystery, scandal, and conspiracy as he descends to a labyrinth beneath the City of Angels while engaging with Comic Fan (Patrick Fischler) author of Under the Silver Lake a comic book about urban legends who he believes knows what’s behind a series of dog killings and other conspiracy theories who himself is murdered …Something really big is going on. I know it. Written, produced and directed by David Robert Mitchell who made the modern horror masterpiece It Follows, this is another metatext in which strange portents and signs abound. Revelling in Hollywoodiana – Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Alfred Hitchcock and Janet Gaynor – and noir and death and the afterlife and the songs that dominate your life and who may or may not have written them, this seems to be an exploration of the obsessions of Gen X. It’s an interesting film to have come out in the same year as Tarantino’s Hollywood mythic valentine Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood and it covers some of the same tropes that have decorated that auteur’s past narratives with a postmodern approach that is summed up in one line: An entire generation of men obsessed with codes and video games and space aliens. The messages in the fetishised songs and cereal box toys and movies are all pointing to a massive conspiracy in communication diverting people from their own meaninglessness, symbolised in the disappearance of the billionaire which has to do with a different idea of the afterlife available only to the very rich. Sam’s quest (and it is a quest – he’s literally led by an Arthurian type of homeless guy – David Yow from the band The Jesus Lizard – straight out of The Fisher King) is a choose your own adventure affair where he gets led down some blind alleys including prostitution and chess games and even gets sprayed by a skunk which lends his character a very special aroma. The postmodern approach even extends to the sex he has – with Millicent Sevence’s (Callie Hernandez) death being a grotesque parody of the magazine cover that initiated him to masturbation. Sigh. Garfield holds the unfolding cartography together but that’s what actors do – they fill in the missing scenes:  it may not be everyone’s idea of fun to watch Spider Man having graphic sex scenes and doing things to himself but the audience is also being played.  If the objects are diffuse and the message too broad, well, you can make of it what you will. It means whatever you want it to mean (it’s not about burial, it’s about ascension), a spectral fever dream that at the end of the day is a highly sexual story about a guy who wants to make it with the woman across the court yard in his apartment building, no matter how many secret messages or subliminal warnings are in your breakfast or how many Monroe scenes are re-enacted, filmed, photographed or otherwise stored in the minutiae of our obsessive compulsive Nineties brains. So what do you think it all means?

 

Attack of the Puppet People (1958)

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Aka The Fantastic Puppet People/War of the Puppet People/Six Inches Tall/ I Was a Teenage Doll. Living in the moment is the most important thing. Inexperienced secretary Sally Reynolds (June Kenney) is grateful to her seemingly kind new boss, eccentric expert doll maker, Mr. Franz (John Hoyt), when he introduces her to a dapper young St Louis salesman Bob (John Agar). Little does she know that Franz is really a mad scientist who fights off loneliness with a machine that shrinks people to one sixth of their size forcing them to serve as his living dolls. But when he shrinks Bob after her predecessor Janet (Jean Moorehead) has disappeared, Sally then becomes his victim and she and Bob refuse to be his playthings, eventually escaping into a dangerous world that towers over them... Nobody can hear little people like us! The Amazing Colossal Man is playing at the drive-in and there’s something so eerie about Mr Franz’s amazing lifelike dolls it would drive a girl crazy with suspicion. George Worthing Yates developed producer/director Bert I. Gordon’s story into a fully fleshed screenplay, inspired by The Incredible Shrinking Man, no concept being beyond the ken of AIP in those exploitation-hungry days. The aforementioned Colossal was Gordon’s own work, hence the generous clip. Kenney (Teen-Age Doll) is terrific as ever as the innocent but the film is best when Hoyt rationally explains his daft plans; and when Sally and Ben are introduced to their fellow captives – US marine Mac (Scott Peters), teenager Stan (Scott Miller), aspiring pop singer Laurie (Marlene Willis) and a broad called Georgia Lane (Laurie Queen of Outer Space Mitchell), who bathes in a pot of instant coffee granules. From the misleading title to the paucity of effects, this is cheap as chips but deadly serious. This guy takes friendship seriously so he does old puppetmaster (Michael Mack) from the old country a favour that leads to the gang’s escape attempt during a very unnerving theatrical debut. That’s the director’s daughter Susan as the irritating little girl who gives the game away to LAPD Sergeant Patterson (Jack Kosslyn). Don’t leave me! I’ll be alone

Harper (1966)

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Why so fast, Harper? You trying to impress me? Struggling private eye Lew Harper (Paul Newman) takes a simple missing-person case that quickly spirals into something much more complex. Elaine Sampson (Lauren Bacall), recently paralysed in a horse-riding accident, wants Harper to find her missing oil baron husband Ralph, but her tempestuous teenage stepdaughter Miranda (Pamela Tiffin) thinks Mrs. Sampson knows more than she’s letting on… The bottom is loaded with nice people, Albert. Only cream and bastards rise. Brilliantly adapted by William Goldman from Ross Macdonald’s 1949 mystery The Moving Target featuring private eye Archer, renamed here because Newman believed the letter ‘H’ to be lucky following Hud and The Hustler. With that team you know it’s filled with zingers, like, Kinky is British for weird. Macdonald’s roots in the post-war noir world are called up in the casting of Bacall, who reminds us that it was The Big Sleep, among other films based on books by the great Raymond Chandler, that brought this style into being. Of course Macdonald’s own interpretation is consciously more mythical than the prototypical Chandler’s, with allusions to Greek tragedy in its familial iterations but it continues in that vein of a ferociously stylish, ironic, delightfully cool appraisal of California’s upper class denizens and their intractable problems. Newman is perfectly cast as a kind of wandering conscience with problems of his own, while Janet Leigh as his ex-wife, Robert Wagner as a playboy, Julie Harris as a junkie musician, Shelley Winters as a faded movie star, Robert Webber as her criminal husband and Albert Hill as a lovelorn lawyer, all add wonderful details to this portrait of a social clique. A flavoursome, perfectly pitched entertainment with lovely widescreen cinematography by Conrad Hall and oh so wittily and precisely staged by director Jack Smight, underscored by the smooth Sixties jazz orchestrations of Johnny Mandel with an original song by Dory and Andre Previn. I used to be a sheriff ’til I passed my literacy test

St Agatha (2018)

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Your name is … Agatha! In October 1957 pregnant con woman Mary (Sabrina Kern) leaves her boyfriend Jimmy (Justin Miles) when a scam goes wrong and takes refuge at an isolated Georgia convent but soon finds out that things are not quite as they seem and has to escape before Mother Superior (Carolyn Hennessy) and her cohorts harm her and her baby … Get your hands off me you bitches! This hopped-up interpretation of what Catholic nuns do to single mothers starts with a claustrophobe’s nightmare – being locked in a coffin: so as someone who baled on my last MRI scan, I was duly entrapped in a story which is a very twisted take on Christian origins. Shot beautifully by Joseph White with gauzy filters lending the convent’s surrounding forest an air of supernature and the entire production an atmosphere which sustains the suspense with the backstory dropped in to illustrate Mary’s family issues. These bewitching scary nuns sure know how to welcome strangers – Mother Superior declares that she too was an unwed mother (the Senator dumped her!) and the scratching sounds in the attics and the bizarre bird-feed vomit in the coffin treatment just confirm Mary’s suspicions that all is not quite right. With its dense flock wallpaper and red lights in the basement this place resembles a brothel. Soon Mary aka Agatha recognises a fellow con in Mother Superior. When Jimmy shows up to try to get Mary back she finds the nuns have guns and they won’t stop short of murder to save the babies to sell them to donors! The books must be balanced and the story takes off. There is quite literally a twist ending when you can take succour from the uses to which you can put a freshly cut umbilical cord:  a logical conclusion to the mediaeval torture that is childbirth. All hail virgin martyrs! Written by Andy Demetrio, Shaun Michaels, Sara Sometti Michaels and Clint Sears.  Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman. You’ve seen what I’m capable of. What kind of mother would I be?

Performance (1970)

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I’ll tell you this: the only performance that makes it, that really makes it, that makes it all the way, is the one that achieves madness. Right? Am I right? You with me?After killing a rival in self-defence, South London gangster Chas (James Fox) must flee both from the law and from his boss, Harry Flowers (Johnny Shannon). He eventually moves into a Notting Hill guest house owned by Turner (Mick Jagger), a former rock star who lives with his two female companions Pherber (Anita Pallenberg) and Lucy (Michèle Breton). Chas presents himself as juggler Johnny Dean. Chas and Turner initially clash, but Turner becomes fascinated with Chas’ life as a criminal. Through drugs and a series of psychological battles with Turner, Chas starts a relationship with Lucy and emerges a different man… Nothing is true, everything is permitted. “You do not have to be a drug addict, pederast, sadomasochist or nitwit to enjoy Performance,” wrote the New York Times reviewer, “but being one or more of those things would help.” The notorious film that made a Warner Bros. exec vomit, this directing collaboration between screenwriter Donald Cammell and cinematographer Nicolas Roeg remains a landmark of Sixties cinema and is Mick Jagger’s acting debut. It started out as a crime drama with an American crim on the lam and when it was shot in 1968 became a very different animal, an experimental and eye-opening analysis of sexual identity, exploring ideas of performance and madness culled from Antonin Artaud. Set in a frankly decadent Swinging London with graphic scenes of sex and drug use, its trippiness, use of real-life gangsters like John Bindon and riffing on the relationships between Pallenberg and Cammell (her ex), Pallenberg and Jagger (their intimate scenes were allegedly the real thing) and Pallenberg and Richards (offscreen) resulted in a screenplay drawing on Pallenberg’s own experiences which were used in Cammell’s screenplay which she co-wrote. There was a change in the plans for the soundtrack which was no longer going to be by The Rolling Stones following the tricky sex on the set:  Jack Nitzsche stepped in. Apparently Pallenberg wasn’t even aware there was a gangster plot until she saw the final cut. Breton had been part of a three way relationship with Cammell and never made another film. John Lennon’s white Rolls Royce makes a cameo appearance. It’s an astonishing and influential piece of work that was slaughtered by the critics – who are now lining up to call it a masterpiece. C’est la guerre. I need a bohemian atmosphere! I’m an artist, Mr. Turner. Like yourself  MM#2350

 

Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965)

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This doll had almost been loved to death. You know, love inflicts the most terrible injuries on my small patients. When American single mother Ann Lake (Carol Lynley) reports her small daughter as missing after she dropped her at nursery school when she arrives in London, Scotland Yard Superintendent Newhouse (Laurence Olivier) investigates and begins to wonder if the child isn’t a figment of the woman’s imagination. Her relationship with her journalist brother Steven (Keir Dullea) also raises questions … Ever heard him read poetry? It’s like a Welsh parson gargling with molasses. Adapted for producer/director Otto Preminger from Evelyn Piper’s (domestic suspense pioneer Merriam Modell who also wrote The Nanny) New York-set novel by husband and wife team John and Penelope Mortimer after unsuccessful attempts by Ira Levin  and Dalton Trumbo, this fits into the director’s psychological noir films where the escalating of suspense is less interesting than the sheer strangeness of people’s lives. From the intricate editing and soundtrack alternating between Paul Glass’ score and rock songs by The Zombies (including one that comments on the action) to the title sequence by Saul Bass, this is a beautiful interrogation of the space between what is real and unreal. Sumptuous looking, it’s a film that simply glides on the surfaces of a society that has not yet erupted into sexual freedom and that knowledge feeds into the solution of the mystery which is altered from the source novel. There is an astounding supporting cast including Clive Revill, Noël Coward (as Ann’s landlord who’s into S&M memorabilia), Lucie Mannheim, Martita Hunt, Finlay Currie and Megs Jenkins.  Olivier has top billing but it’s all about the brother and sister and both the young actors do very well. During production Lynley and Dullea discovered not only that they had in common an Irish heritage but they even shared living relatives in Ireland which makes sense when you look at them, echoing the implication of incest in the story. Lynley claimed that Dullea bore the brunt of Preminger’s legendary bullying. Noël Coward (No autographs please but you may touch my garment) didn’t think much of Dullea as an actor either. He apparently walked up to him on the set one day and whispered, “Keir Dullea, gone tomorrow.” Dullea had the last laugh – Stanley Kubrick offered him the lead in 2001: A Space Odyssey after seeing this.  He didn’t even have to audition. I have some more African heads in my apartment. Small, pickled ones. Do drop in anytime you care to meet some unsuccessful politicians

The Lost City of Z (2016)

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You’re a long way from Government now. At the dawn of the 20th century, British explorer Colonel Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) is encouraged by his superiors to redeem his family name following his father’s dissolute actions, ruining the Fawcett reputation.  Although married to the supportive Nina (Sienna Miller) with a young son and one on the way, he journeys across the Atlantic to South America to carry out a survey of the Amazon in order to help adjudicate borders and to establish national territories.  On board the ship he encounters Corporal Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson)  a man who knows the rainforest. He joins the party which includes aide-de-camp Arthur Manley (Edward Ashley) and they go into the Amazon, where they experience the surreal pleasures of an opera in the middle of the jungle and discover evidence of a previously unknown, advanced civilisation that may have once inhabited the region, triggered by stories told them by their guide. Despite being ridiculed by the scientific establishment back in London when he reports his findings, which contradicts their bias against indigenous populations as savages, the determined Fawcett, supported by his devoted wife, son, Costin and Manley, returns to his beloved jungle in an attempt to prove his case. After another set of discoveries he is challenged by biologist James Murray (Angus MacFadyen) who falsely claims they left him for dead so Fawcett leaves the Royal Geographical Society. He is injured on the Somme when he fights in WW1 but in 1925 when his son Jack (Tom Holland) grows up he wants to help his father pursue his obsession and find the City of Z that Nina found out about in a conquistador text at Trinity College Dublin... To look for what is beautiful is its own reward. A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for? It comes off a little like Fawcett of Amazonia at first but then this James Gray film establishes its own insistent rhythm with a hallucinatory bent that comes first from obsession and then with repetition. Indeed one is forced into a world recognisably that of David Lean but also Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (quite literally, at the opera) and perhaps Conrad. However the difference is in the doggedness and the feminine element – here Nina plays a crucial part in Percy’s evolving obsession when the document she finds fuels the fire in his belly and ironically leads to increased separation. Adapted from David Grann’s 2009 non-fiction book, this has some of the usual flaws besetting Gray’s films – a kind of muted incompleteness or psychological lack and a physical darkness – but the facts of the story, the deadly nature of the pursuit and the fascinating history compensate and it has a decent pace. Hunnam grows into the role as the story progresses, caring about slavery and native peoples and expressing proper awe at the sight of sculptures and ancient artefacts; and Miller is fine as the proto-feminist who reads from the letter she wrote when she thought she wouldn’t survive childbirth:  as she tells her husband, “You haven’t even seen it for two minutes,” when he protests the jungle is no place for a woman and takes off yet again leaving her pregnant. It’s an admirable corrective to the standard male-oriented expedition narratives, with an amazing coda. In the end, this is actually spellbinding. There is great irony deployed: Fawcett meets Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Ireland and years later in South America he sees the story about his assassination and is told it will trigger a great war:  his escape across the Atlantic was precisely to avoid conflict and now he is going to be catapulted back into something quite dreadful.  He has a wonderful wife and happy domestic life yet he is truly at home in an utterly alien environment where the natives happily shoot poison arrows. He goes back, again and again, despite ridicule and disputes. He has a higher aim and it becomes something verging on mystical. The cinematography by Darius Khondji and score by Christopher Spelman are quite wondrous at times. Executive produced by Brad Pitt. There is no going back. We are already here

Kissing Candice (2017)

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I don’t know if I’m dreaming or I’m awake. Lonely and bored small-town teen Candice (Ann Skelly) dreams of a more exciting life and is rescued from an epileptic episode by a stranger Jacob (Ryan Lincoln). Becoming obsessed with this young man who has materialised from her vivid dreams and into her real life, she finds herself being drawn in and entangled with a dangerous local gang he’s in which is led by Dermot (Conall Keating) whom her policeman father Donal (John Lynch) suspects when local boy Caleb (Jason Cullen) disappears… It was a lot safer here during the Troubles. Written by first-time director Northern Irish Aoife McArdle (who has a background in music videos and commercials) this Irish film has plenty of imagination and a hallucinatory style but is an untethered narrative with no real logic. The dreamy ambience is strained by the social realist setting on a grim border county housing estate where Candice’s fantasies provide an escape valve from the bleakness while her friendship with Martha (Caitriona Ennis) allows for some barbed humour. The writing unravels, careening between the real world gang plot and the abstract coming of age/mental health line, but it has a kind of sleepwalking atmosphere. Now the mad ones have the run of the place

Under the Volcano (1984)

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He on whose heart the dust of Mexico has lain, will find no peace in any other land. A day in the life of a man in 1938. Geoffrey Firmin (Albert Finney) is an alcoholic former British consul living in Quauhnahuac, a small Mexican town. As the local Day of the Dead celebration gets underway, Geoffrey drowns himself in the bottle, having cut himself off from his family, friends and job. When he goes missing, his ex-wife, actress Yvonne (Jacqueline Bisset), who has returned from the US in the hopes of resurrecting their relationship, convinces his half-brother Hugh (Anthony Andrews) to conduct a last-ditch search for him, hoping that Hugh might be able to rescue her self-destructing husband… How, unless you drink as I do, can you hope to understand the beauty of an old Indian woman playing dominoes with a chicken? Adapted by Guy Gallo (his only screenplay to date) from Malcolm Lowry’s 1947 masterpiece, this late John Huston film (and he rejected over 20 versions of the screenplay over the decades) is a powerhouse film: brilliantly interpreted by everyone concerned. Reunited with his director following Annie, Finney offers one of his great performances, committed and charismatic, as the dissolute man who nonetheless has a core of humanity. Huston said of it, I think it’s the finest performance I have ever witnessed, let alone directed.  Huston had lived in Puerto Vallarta for a period and shot The Night of the Iguana there as well of course as having made one of his other films in Mexico – maybe his best ever, full stop – The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Clearly the country brought something special to his aesthetic – and vice versa. There is nothing more real than magic. Here the various elements churn and dissect a life, symbolised in the wonderful titles sequence. It’s marvellous to see Katy Jurado as Senora Gregoria, a key supporting character in this drama that constantly threatens us with being on the brink of something – death? Truth? War? It was originally written by Lowry in 1936 but underwent many rewrites. It’s so special it’s the subject of two documentaries including the Oscar-nominated Volcano: An Inquiry into the Life and Death of Malcolm Lowry, in which Lowry’s words are read by Richard Burton, who Huston had hoped to cast as the lead right after they shot Iguana. Quite, quite the film then, with a legacy all its own. Hell is my natural habitat