Sliver (1993)

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Get a life. Book editor Carly Norris (Sharon Stone) moves into the exclusive building on East 38th St in NYC – but her resemblance to the previous resident in her apartment Naomi Singer (Allison Mackie) gets her strange glances:  Singer supposedly threw herself off the balcony. Carly is quickly befriended by an elderly academic who tells her he suspects murder and then he’s found dead in his shower. Novelist Jack Landsford (Tom Berenger) hits on her but he seems to be particularly close to next door neighbour model Vida (Polly Walker). And Zeke Hawkins (William Baldwin) also takes a fancy to Carly and she to him. Soon they’re having sex – and being watched. Because Zeke likes to watch. He has a bank of surveillance monitors since he owns the building and rigged every apartment. He shows Carly what’s going on in everyone’s apartment and tells her Jack was involved with Naomi. Then she finds Jack with Vida in the stairwell after Vida has been stabbed and calls the police. Adapted by Joe Eszterhas from Ira Levin’s novel, this was extensively reshot for censorship purposes – and changed the killer. So whatever point the film may have had about the links between voyeurism, the surveillance society, the sex drive and the uncontrollable urge to kill is erased. Not just daft but utterly sleazy. Ho hum. Watch Rear Window instead. Directed by Philip Noyce.

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The Beguiled (1971)

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What an extraordinary generic blend this is:  part Western, part Gothic or Grand Guignol, and an emblematic role for Clint Eastwood who would turn aspects  of its perverse sexuality into a motif in Play Misty for Me and Tightrope.  He’s a Union soldier badly wounded in the Civil War, found by Amy (Pamelyn Ferdin) a little girl who attends a seminary nearby in very Southern Louisiana. Deciding eventually not to report him to the Confederate soldiers, headmistress Geraldine Page sets her sights on him – but so does teacher Elizabeth Hartman. And student Jo Ann Harris … Adapted from Thomas Cullinan’s novel A Painted Devil, this plumbs areas of psyched out femininity that no other films truly reach.  It becomes clear that Page indulged in an incestuous relationship with her late brother;  Hartman is a virgin;  and Harris is a fox – whom Eastwood naturally beds, to the others’ uncontrollable fury. The Gothic trope of the staircase looms and Hartman pushes him to the bottom of it – giving Page an excuse to lop off one of his legs and trap him there forever. When he accidentally kills Amy’s turtle everything comes to a head and any plans he might have are as dust. There’s nothing like women scorned, is there? Bruce Surtees’ dreamlike cinematography lends this twisted narrative an art house feel that is entirely different to any of Eastwood’s output to that time – and the studio had no idea how to market it. Blacklisted writer Albert Maltz did the original adaptation but he gave it a happy ending – so another draft was done by Irene Kamp. Both of them were credited pseudonymously. And the real rewrite by associate producer Claude Traverse went uncredited. Director Don Siegel worked with Eastwood to create a different phase of his iconicity following the spaghetti westerns that brought the actor global fame  – and this was the real start of crafting something mysterious and ineffable and even masochistic in his screen persona, alongside the action roles that kept the studios happy. No wonder Sofia Coppola wanted to remake it. I can’t wait to see what she does with it. This is great anyhow you choose. (And an opportunity to see the tragic Hartman). When this came out my aunt’s mate at boarding school snuck out to see it and she was caught by the nuns climbing back in a window very late at night. When she explained her uncontrollable weakness for Mr Eastwood they said they understood completely and she wasn’t punished. Now that’s some cool nuns. And how very fitting!

The Two Jakes (1990)

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We’re approaching Jack Nicholson’s landmark 80th birthday and he’s not very far from our minds anyhow, is he? Nobody dislikes this guy, a Seventies superstar whose offscreen life never threatened his essential abilities to act better than most anyone else. Two Jakes is the continuing story of Jake Gittes whom Nicholson inhabited so memorably in the classic Chinatown, a mythos of Los Angeles created by Robert Towne as part homage, part interrogation of that great city and its wobbly foundations. Now it’s post-WW2 and Gittes is hired by another Jake, Berman (Harvey Keitel) to do a routine matrimonial job. Gittes leads Berman to his wife’s lover, whom he murders. He’s Berman’s business partner. We return to the world of deceit and conspiracy that characterises film noir, albeit we are in living colour with a fabulously feline Madeleine Stowe as a very fatale femme.  It isn’t always a success and while the voiceover narration is true to the style it’s not always satisfying in a plot which might have been tightened a tad had screenwriter Robert Towne been around to finish it, an issue that caused trouble for Nicholson, who directed this outing. However there’s a lot to savour – it looks amazing and there’s a flavoursome soundtrack by Van Dyke Parks. It makes me wish we could finally have the last part of Towne’s projected LA trilogy. For more on this see my book about Robert Towne:  https://www.amazon.co.uk/ChinaTowne-Elaine-Lennon-ebook/dp/B01KCL3YXQ/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1492610518&sr=1-2&keywords=elaine+lennon

The Other Boleyn Girl (2008)

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Peter Morgan’s ironed out some of the flummery from Philippa Gregory’s Tudor bestseller, already adapted by the BBC a few years earlier. The Boleyns need money so dad Mark Rylance plots with his brother in law the Duke of Norfolk (the awful, honking David Morrissey) to whore his daughter Anne (Natalie Portman) to Henry VIII (Eric Bana), that great ugly philanderer whose wife just will not reproduce a healthy son. Trouble is, this rather one-note Henry gets a look at Anne’s sister Mary (Scarlett Johansson) and his feelings betray him so he decides to have her first – and she goes on to bear him a bastard son, just as the scheming Anne gets her claws into him. But when Anne continues to refuse Henry bedding rights he sodomises her and she needs Mary’s sympathy as she tries to rid him of his wife and gain the throne and when she does she will do anything to bear a healthy son … If this never reaches the powerful emotional heights it seems to be striving for, it’s a moderately gripping and quite streamlined interpretation of the power plays that went on in royal circles and proves what Diana, Princess of Wales discovered – life at court can be nasty, brutish and short. Divorced, beheaded …

Chinatown (1974)

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How do you describe a movie you’ve seen? How do you write a movie you’ve seen in your head so many times it’s like you lived it? The stars aligned when this one was made. Robert Towne turned down a lot of money to adapt The Great Gatsby for producer Robert Evans to decamp to Catalina Island with his great friends – the scholar Edward Taylor and his dog Hira. There, in the winter of 1971, he wrote one of the great Hollywood films, a fictionalised telling of the diversion of water from the Owens River Valley, set a few decades later than it occurred.  Private eye Jake/JJ Gittes was based on his friend Jack Nicholson, who played the role as born to it. Los Angeles, 1937. Jake is hired by a woman to investigate her cheating husband and gets mired in a mystery he could never hope to solve:  the corruption infesting the State of California and the distribution of Water (and Power), unwittingly finding himself falling in love with an heiress who’s given birth to her sister/daughter, the progeny of the man responsible for raping the land. Towne wrote a second draft which reads like Hammett, a beautiful exercise in pulp noir: I love it so much I dream about that biplane ride out to Catalina. But director Roman Polanski forced Towne into a third draft with an altered ending which is what was shot. Even with plot holes it’s extraordinary, shocking, funny, terrifying and blindingly brilliant, a sublime cinematic experience. It’s a modern classic, for which Towne won the Academy Award. The guide at Paramount may be too young to know about it when you do the studio tour but if you want to know more you can read my book about Towne and this film and all the other screenplays he’s written and films he’s made: https://www.amazon.com/ChinaTowne-Elaine-Lennon-ebook/dp/B01KCL3YXQ/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1481117503&sr=1-3&keywords=elaine+lennon.

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Scarface (1983)

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‘Say hello to my little friend!’ Ah, Cuba. What it has given to the world. Cigars. And… coke dealers! This probably isn’t the film to recommend to people opposed to the mass entry of refugees in their back door. Oliver Stone interpreted the great Ben Hecht’s original story (for director Howard Hawks and producer Howard Hughes’s 1932 classic) to incorporate the influx of criminals to Florida in 1980 with Castro’s amnesty, flooding the area with jailbirds. It was Pacino’s idea to remake the film and Sidney Lumet came up with updating it setting it in the Mariel boatlift but Stone then picked up the reins while dealing with his own cocaine habit when Lumet dropped out. Stone and producer Marty Bregman got access to US Attorney and Organized Crime Bureau files in Miami so we have to say in our defence, m’lud, these things may actually have happened … Teamed with director Brian De Palma we get a great, baroque, violent tale of the rise and fall of Tony Montana (Pacino, peerless, unforgettable, brilliant), who’s just assassinated a Cuban  government official and gets a green card to a very unwelcoming Miami. He teams up with Manny (Steven Bauer) and they take on the local crime lords to become drug kingpins, picking up the stunning Michelle Pfeiffer along the way with little sis Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio joining in the drug-addled fun. The violence is just jaw-dropping – and yes, I’m referring to the chainsaw in the shower. Jesus. With a great supporting cast giving wonderfully detailed performances – Paul Shenar and F. Murray Abraham among them, and goodness, why doesn’t Pfeiffer do more films? Or Mastrantonio?! – cinematography by John A. Alonzo and a pretty groundbreaking score by Giorgio Moroder, we have to say that this is … INCREDIBLE!

Crimson Peak (2015)

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Gothic romantic horror? I’m there. Jane Eyre, Rebecca and all that good stuff. Problem Number One. Just looking at Tom Hiddleston and Mia Wasikowska’s names gives me what I believe doctors call the Heebie Jeebies. Aren’t they bloody scary? And so is this, literally. And the casting is of course part of the situation. (Someone should ask directors why it is that they cast unlikeable actors and actresses in leading roles – seriously: why don’t they ASK SOMEONE?) You have to care about people in films, even if they are writing Gothic stories and have to be told they’ve forgotten to include a love plot – very meta. I don’t really care what happens to aspiring authoress Miss W when she leaves the US and takes off to fortune hunter Tom’s castle in England, even if she is sporting the hairdo of my favourite pre-Raphaelite heroine and her dad’s been bludgeoned to death by her sister-in-law (Jessica Chastain – see what I mean?) on a sink (horrible). Problem Number Two. This is seriously violent, gory and bloody. It may be that Guillermo del Toro (and co-writer Matthew Robbins – seriously!) wanted to twist Edith Wharton and Bluebeard into a ghastly postmodern fantasia of comic book horror but I’m with the man who said I’ll try everything once except incest and folk dancing. Did they forget to include folk dancing here? Well gee whiz everything else is thrown in … My bad. No. Theirs, actually.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

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How innocent do JR’s Who’s That Knocking At My Door fantasies appear in the welter of sexual spectacle on display here. Stockbroker Jordan Belfort’s memoir of his outrageous drug and sex-fuelled exploits on Wall Street at his firm Stratton Oakmont are pure outrage:  nothing succeeds like excess. It’s in your face from the first moment in Terence Winter’s adaptation for director Martin Scorsese, his last film to date. Leonardo DiCaprio’s fifth collaboration with the NYC filmmaker is nothing if not exact:  he shepherded the project into production over a prolonged period and his performance is extraordinary – and he’s matched by Jonah Hill as Donnie the totally crazed acolyte who has married his own cousin and publicly masturbates upon first sight of Jordan’s new crush, Margot Robbie, whom he marries after cheating with her on his wife. The scene when Jordan and Donnie ingest out of date super ludes has to be seen to be believed:  DiCaprio’s voiceover explaining his trip straight to cerebral palsy is just … beyond description. Trouble is, FBI agent Kyle Chandler and the Securities Commission are onto Jordan and people start getting careless in their sales methods and there’s so much money they’re running out of hiding places. The viewer is effectively subjected to an onslaught of nudity, sex, drug-addled mania and hilarity in this horrific inversion of Horatio Alger. If your eyes don’t explode your brain will. (Remember all the little people whose money they took…) Nothing less than brilliant.

Bates Motel 2013-

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There can be no doubt as to Alfred Hitchcock’s incredible influence on culture and cinema and the great mould-breaker of them all was Psycho (1960). It changed the way films were made. Partly because Hitchcock had been making such a success of his career in TV. In the mid-1950s Hitchcock began a different phase of his career: the Film Director as Superstar.  He inhabited every American living room with the success of his weekly TV suspense series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, in an extraordinarily profitable deal negotiated by superagent Lew Wasserman.The director commented that “the invention of television can be compared to the introduction of indoor plumbing.  Fundamentally it brought no change to the public’s habits. It simply eliminated the necessity of leaving the house.”  Now everybody’s home was subject to a weekly fright night. Or, as Peter Conrad puts it, “Hitchcock brought fear home to us.”  Psycho would have its own double, triple, quadrupled life form as it multiplied and sequelised.  The second sequel was directed by Anthony Perkins, Norman Bates himself, doubling as star, and the original even got its own cover version, directed by Gus Van Sant in 1998 with the approval of Pat Hitchcock. It has been prequelised in TV series Bates Motel (Universal, 2013-).  Far from being the wack job that such a concept suggests, according to Stephen Rebello, Hitchcock had hoped to make a prequel to the film and discussed it with Robert Bloch.  (Rebello, 2013:  188) That didn’t come to fruition in his lifetime – but it has in ours, and thank goodness for it. It differs from Psycho IV:  The Beginning. Moving the action to Oregon in the Pacific North West, we are in Twin Peaks country and the series, now concluding Season 4, has all the hallmarks of lessons well-learned. Season 1 focuses on the move to the fabled haunted house, with Mom Norma (!) and son Norman, still in high school, trying to make a go of the business while a proposed bypass will bring traffic in the opposite direction. Dad died mysteriously in Arizona. A man attacks Norma, she kills him and Norman helps her get rid of the body. In Season Two Norman gets way too close to his teacher who winds up … dead. Another son shows up, Dylan. We get the strong whiff of incest. In Season Three, Norman’s close friendship with a girl is paralleled with his mental disintegration and the Sheriff who’d been close to Norma distances himself. In Season Four, Norman is introduced at full throttle drag and things are really heating up after he’s released from a local mental hospital. There is SO much more but those are the bones of it. Season Five is promising the appearance of a certain Marion Crane – which is where we all came in! This is A&E’s most successful scripted show and it is stunningly constructed. At the heart of it is the relationship between Norma and Norman:  the bravura performances of Vera Farmiga (executive producer) and Freddie Highmore as the creepily co-dependent deluded psychotic duo are just part of an extraordinarily brave hybrid of remake, sequel and prequel developed by Carlton Cuse, Kerry Ehrin and Anthony Cipriano. Hitchcock’s fright night lives.  Roll on Season 5! I cannot WAIT!

Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

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It doesn’t have huge stars or an immediate sense of a masterpiece. However the influence of the Gothic and what would come to be called film noir is all over this skewed tale of Americana made in 1942, directly after the United States entered World War 2.  Hitchcock was finally in the process of settling down and buying property, and he was making a film on location in a small Californian town, the epitome of Andy Hardy-ness.  Until Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten) comes to town and his namesake niece (Teresa Wright) begins to suspect that there’s a serial killer of wealthy widows in their midst … The constant sense of threat, the overwhelming fear that something bad will happen, is built into every scintilla of the film’s design.  Our sympathy for Uncle Charlie is cunningly transferred to his niece as his psychopathy is revealed.  Long thought to be the maestro’s favourite film (he demurred when asked to confirm) this was Hitchcock’s earliest sign of an interest in the double, a preoccupation that would herald Strangers on a Train, Vertigo, and the noirest noir of them all – Psycho. I have written a book about this film and you can get it here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Girl-Who-Knew-Too-Much-ebook/dp/B01KTWF08U/ref=sr_1_5?ie=UTF8&qid=1476297954&sr=8-5&keywords=elaine+lennon.

The Girl Who Knew Too Much: Shadow of a Doubt (1943) by [Lennon, Elaine]