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.

Sunset (1988)

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Blake Edwards’ adaptation of Rod Amateau’s unpublished manuscript about the friendship between movie cowboy Tom Mix (Bruce Willis) and real life Wyatt Earp (James Garner) had the potential to be something quite brilliant:  it doesn’t carry it off due to inconsistencies of tone (never quite slapstick, never quite thriller) and performance (Willis didn’t heed his director to take his role seriously) but it retains its interest. Hollywood’s well-preserved 1920s villas provide a magnificent backdrop to a story set in 1929 just when the industry was getting to grips with the transition to sound. Earp in real life had moved to Los Angeles in 1910 but here he’s newly arrived and hired on a silent movie set to advise Mix and they get embroiled in a murder at the Kit Kat Club, a high class brothel where the whores are movie star lookalikes (shades of LA Confidential) run by the cross-dressing Cheryl (Mariel Hemingway.) Earp tries to help his old girlfriend Christina (Patricia Hodge) who happens to be married to studio boss Alfie Alperin (Malcolm McDowell), a thinly disguised version of Chaplin, and her son, who is in constant trouble and goes missing. The mystery at the story’s heart involves police corruption with those reliable villains M. Emmet Walsh and Richard Bradford and Warhol stud Joe Dallasandro showing up as a gangster. There’s a scene at that year’s Academy Awards (not anatomically correct, but still fun) and lots of really interesting performances in the wings including John Fountain playing his grandfather, the legendary John Gilbert. Willis’ unpreparedness made for a difficult time and Garner (a gentleman) commented on it, a rare instance of his speaking out against a colleague and his own performance really saves the film. Garner had of course worked with Edwards before – on Victor/Victoria. His interpretation of Earp is markedly lighter than his earlier one in Hour of the Gun.  There’s a cute running joke about his inability to drive a car – he does it a lot and in real life Garner was an accomplished racer and stunt driver particularly on The Rockford Files. In a neat nod to that, Dermot Mulroney makes his debut – he would play (my beloved!) Rockford in a TVM reboot. The other pluses are the LA locations used including the Ambassador Hotel, the Roosevelt Hotel, Melody Ranch, Bell Ranch and Orange Empire Railway Museum. Not great Edwards but worth a watch for the idea and Garner, with the usually reliable score from Henry Mancini as well as delectable photography by Anthony B. Richmond. A missed opportunity to make a satisfying Hollywood murder mystery but heck with all that talent I’ll take this anyhow.

The Big Lebowski (1998)

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Nobody fucks with the Jesus. The Dude abides. Where to start with one of the most cherished films there has ever been? Not in the beginning. I may have almost had a coronary from laughing the first time I saw this at a festival screening prior to its release, but a lot of critics just did not get it. It’s the Coen Brothers in excelsis, a broad Chandler adaptation and tribute to Los Angeles,  a hymn to male friendship and the Tao of easy living with some extraordinarily surreal fantasy and dream sequences – not to mention some deadly bowling. Jeff Bridges is Jeffrey ‘Dude’ Lebowski, a guy so laid back he’s horizontal but he gets a little antsy when some thieves mistake him for The Big Lebowski and piss on his rug (it really tied the room together). Best friend Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) is his bowling buddy, an uptight Nam vet with adoptive-Jewish issues in this hilarious offside take on director John Milius. Steve Buscemi is their sweet-natured friend Donny and John Turturro is the unforgettable sports foe, a hispanic gangsta paedo in a hairnet, Jesus Quintana. After the rug issue is handled, Dude is hired by his namesake (David Huddleston) a wheelchair-bound multimillionaire philanthropist, to exchange a ransom when his young trophy wife Bunny (Tara Reid) is kidnapped. Naturally Dude screws it up. There’s a band of nihilists led by Peter Stormare, some porn producers (Bunny makes flesh flicks), Lebowski’s randy artist daughter (Julianne Moore) and a private eye following everyone. And there’s Sam Elliott, narrating this tale of tumbleweed and laziness.  Everyone has their signature song in one of the great movie soundtracks and Dude has not only Creedence but White Russians to really mellow his day. Just like The Big Sleep, the plot really doesn’t matter a fig. This is inspired lunacy and I love it SO much.

True Romance (1993)

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How do you describe the 90s bastard child of Bonnie and Clyde and Badlands? Total cool. How easy is that to achieve in a movie? Well it helps to have a script by Tarantino. And to be directed by Tony Scott. And then there’s the beyond-belief cast:  Christian Slater. Patricia Arquette. Gary Oldman. Dennis Hopper.  Christopher Walken. Michael Rapaport.  Brad Pitt. James Gandolfini. Tom Sizemore. Chris Penn. And that’s just the start of it. It’s ridiculous! It Boy Slater is Clarence, the comic book-pop culture geek who falls for the pretty call girl Alabama and makes off with a huge coke haul belonging to her pimp and pisses off a lot of the wrong people. His dad Hopper does the astonishing Sicilian-nigger speech to Walken – and how stunning are all those jaw-dropping monologues, no wonder Tarantino is so beloved by actors. (Rolling Stone called his dialogue ‘gutter poetry.’) When the gangsters come calling the violence is sickening and yet the colour lends it an appropriately ripened comic book quality.  There’s a slamdunk shootout involving Hollywood jerks and practically everyone gets killed but Clarence’s very special mentor keeps him chill. Awesome.

American Gigolo (1980)

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A romantic drama about a male prostitute. Well it would have to be the beautiful Richard Gere at the peak of his masculinity in every sense – he was the first star to be photographed full frontal. Then of course a decade later he would play the man hiring the whore in Pretty Woman – not that my three year old cousin whose fave movie that was had the remotest idea. Paul Schrader’s fantasy about procurement, licentious behaviour and surfaces plays remarkably well these days. Gere is Julian Kaye, the high class multilingual (quiet there at the back) gigolo who usually works for an elegant procuress, Anne (Nina van Pallandt) sleeping with rich older women and squiring widows about town. He takes a job as a favour for street pimp Leon (Bill Duke) which turns into a very rough trick in Palm Springs and days later he’s had a murder pinned on him. Detective Hector Elizondo pretty much knows it’s not him but has to go after him anyhow. In the interim Julian has fallen for an unhappily married politician’s wife Michelle Stratton (model Lauren Hutton) and finds himself untouchable. That’s the big irony in this cool and observant film about narcissism and control. It became famous for two things – the Blondie song in the title sequence (Call Me)  which is reworked into thematic sequences and the montage in which Julian picks out his wardrobe – all Armani. The abstract images for the sex sequences particularly between Gere and Hutton seem to crystallise emotional detachment but the final image in which Julian perversely finds freedom in prison with Michelle on the other side of a window is pure Bresson. He rescues her and she saves him right back. Very interesting indeed and a key reason for Gere’s superstardom after the studio wanted Christopher Reeve and John Travolta turned it down – as he did many roles which then fell in Gere’s capacious lap…

Cafe Society (2016)

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Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) arrives in Hollywood straight outta the Bronx  c.1935 to work with his movie agent uncle Phil (Steve Carell) and falls for his assistant Vonnie (Kristen Stewart). Everything looks beautiful, bathed in magic moment sunshine and swoony evening light and people talk about Irene Dunne and Willie Wyler but it turns out Vonnie is Phil’s mistress and he leaves his wife to marry her leaving Bobby brokenhearted and back in his beloved Bronx working front of house for his gangster brother Ben (Corey Stoll) in a glamorous nightclub. He marries divorcee Veronica (Blake Lively) whom he promptly rechristens Vonnie. She has a baby and her time is taken up caring for her. Then Phil and Vonnie visit while passing through NYC and a romance of sorts recommences but as Bobby realises, Vonnie (this Vonnie) is now his aunt … This is a film of two halves, which do not mesh.  The leads are in their third film together but Stewart is much too modern to play her role, Eisenberg is quite weird – that hunched-shouldered look doth not a schlub make – and the good performances are in supporting roles:  Jeannie Berlin and particularly Ken Stott as the Dorfman parents, Stoll, who is literally criminally underused and Stephen Kunken as the brother in law who inadvertently causes Bobby’s sister Evelyn to have Ben murder their neighbour. Despite the episodes of violence, the talk about what is reality and what is cinema, and the central idea about marriage and what people do to keep relationships going despite clear incompatibility – and there’s a strange (self-?) reference to a man with a teenaged mistress… – this just doesn’t work. The faraway looks in the leads’ eyes at the unsatisfying and inconclusive climax, a country apart, merely highlight the vacuum at the story’s centre. Minor Allen to be sure. It looks great though, so thank you Vittorio Storaro.

Tropic Thunder (2008)

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Everybody knows you never go full retard! Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr) is the Aussie Method actor par excellence in blackface giving retrospective advice to Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller) the ludicrously vain Hollywood star who made that very mistake in his quest for Oscar. Now they’re in the jungles of Vietnam doing their version of the War years after everyone else has stopped those kinds of movies and causing no end of difficulties for hapless Brit director (Steve Coogan) who is killed in the fray. Back at the studio the vile boss Les Grossman (an unrecognisable Tom Cruise) just sees insurance $$$$ when Speedman gets separated from the crew as they go shooting guerilla style in a self-defeating move – and he’s kidnapped by drugs lords who make him act out Stupid Jack, the only film they have on VHS. Only Tugg’s agent (Matthew McConaughey) cares about his charge. The other actors, who include Fatties franchise star Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) decide to rescue Tugg without realising their director is dead and this is not a movie any more … This is a Hollywood satire that also operates as a proper action movie and what a rare feat that is. Just when you think it’s a sketch show that goes on too long, Tugg kills a panda (he’s crusading for their rights on the back of Vanity Fair) and Danny McBride calls Nick Nolte ‘the Milli Vanilli of patriots.’ Gut-bustingly funny when it works, and you know all the movies it’s spoofing, Grossman was apparently all Cruise’s idea and some might say it’s a rather vicious take on Sumner Redstone as revenge for booting him off the Paramount lot when he jumped on Oprah’s couch. From a story by Justin Theroux and Ben Stiller, written by Etan Cohen. Directing by Ben Stiller. Dancing by Les Grossman!

Jonathan Demme 02/22/44-04/26/17

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Multi-talented director Jonathan Demme has died. He got his start with Roger Corman and debuted with a biker movie and naturally graduated to women in prison flicks before entering mainstream Hollywood and making his name with some fine films starring terrific women like Goldie Hawn and Melanie Griffith.  His first critically acclaimed movie was however the wonderful Bo Goldman screenplay Melvin and Howard, one of the best of the Seventies with an unforgettable performance by Jason Robards as Howard Hughes and beautifully shot by longtime collaborator Tak Fujimoto. He made some wonderful documentaries particularly the landmark music film Stop Making Sense with Talking Heads:  who can forget David Byrne on stage in that enormously boxy suit? But his name will be forever associated with a shocking adaptation that is one of that tiny number of films to win the Big 5 at the Academy Awards – The Silence of the Lambs won for Actor, Actress, Picture, Adapted Screenplay and Director. He may have made some missteps and unnecessary remakes but humour, humanity and compassion shone from his work. Demme will be missed.

LIFE (2015)

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Luke Davies’ screenplay centring on the circumstances behind the unforgettable LIFE photo essay about James Dean in an issue from March 1955 is uncertain about who the story’s protagonist is:   the most exciting actor most of us have ever seen, as incarnated by Dane DeHaan, or photographer Dennis Stock (Robert Pattinson)? Peculiarly it is Stock who comes across as pathological, unhappy and desperate whereas Dean seems a decent sort being screwed around by Jack Warner (Ben Kingsley) who knows he’s on to something great but wants to control this rebel from bad PR. Stock supposedly met Dean at a party at Nick Ray’s when he was casting Rebel Without a Cause and the distractions are looking at an actress who looks nothing like Natalie Wood and an epicene man who only bares a slight resemblance to Ray, along with the overriding story arc of Stock’s failed teenage marriage and his unwillingness to spend time with a very young son. Dean’s relationship with Pier Angeli is artfully used to construct the parameters of his Hollywood life;  while the trip the two men make back to Indiana before the premiere of East of Eden which commences in NYC’s Times Square is of course the setting for one of most people’s favourite poster, latterly called The Boulevard of Broken Dreams. The real story here is about the relationship between a photographer and his subject, whom he virtually stalked for the story, perhaps sensing something in Dean that Dean did not yet suspect was within himself. It’s nicely put together and shot, as you would expect from Anton Corbijn, a man who knows something about the craft behind creating iconic images – his rock career is probably the most notable of any photographer/video director of the last thirty years. But somehow even De Haan’s uncanny interpretation is not the favoured performance here and the ghastly Pattinson gets equal screen time in some sort of deluded payoff to the director’s former job. I don’t get it. How’d that happen?! There seems to be some kind of queer subtext that isn’t quite brought to the surface – despite the rumours about Dean, it’s Stock who appears to be unhealthily obsessive and projecting something that isn’t really there.  It makes you wonder about all those people who made money off their Jimmy stories when he was no longer around. Oh well, better to be talked about … than not. An opportunity mostly missed, sadly.

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Happy 80th Birthday Jack Nicholson! 22nd April 2017

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Is there anyone who doesn’t like this man? The legendary wild man of the American cinema turns an unbelievable 80 this weekend. The self-proclaimed Irish Democrat from the Jersey shore has never given anything less than an interesting performance and there’s a lot to choose from as you can see from the posters – chronicling sixty years of his films from his beginnings with Roger Corman and the first decade where he really paid his dues and wrote several screenplays into the bargain. We all have our own favourites amongst his work and there are the great films like Five Easy PiecesCuckoo’s Nest and Chinatown (written by Robert Towne for him – they became friends at an acting workshop) and The Shining.  And there are the not fully great ones where he crafts truly hilarious or interesting or moving characters, like The Border or Ironweed, Blood and Wine, The King of Marvin Gardens or The Pledge. He’s been pleasurable in truly terrible films like As Good as it Gets or a challenging one like Carnal Knowledge. His forays into directing have been fascinating – Drive, He Said, The Missouri Breaks, Goin’ South, The Two Jakes. He will hopefully return to the screen in the US version of Toni Erdmann, recently announced, but until then he has a truly magnificent back catalogue to plunder. Choose your own Jack Nicholson Adventure. Happy Birthday to a great star and an astonishing talent.