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?

 

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The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973)

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No, I am not finished. Look, I’m gettin’ old, you hear? Ageing low-level Boston gunrunner Eddie ‘Fingers’ Coyle (Robert Mitchum) is looking at several years of jail for a hold-up if he doesn’t funnel information to treasury agent Dave Foley (Richard Jordan) so he has to decide whether to turn stoolie. He buys guns from another gunrunner, Jackie Brown (Steven Keats), then gives him up to Foley, but it’s not enough. Conflicted, Eddie decides to also give up the gang of bank robbers he’s been supplying, only to find Foley already knows about them, and the mob believes Eddie snitched. The real permanent cop fink, barkeep Dillon (Peter Boyle) is called upon to render a service .. I wished I had a nickel for every name I got that was all right.  It could only be Robert Mitchum, couldn’t it, in this great gangster flick, one of the best films of the Seventies. Adapted from George V. Higgins’ classic novel, a gripping iteration of the Irish-American underworld given a stately interpretation by producer Paul Monash who knows just how to put the boot into that old saw about honour among thieves and how you really shouldn’t trust cops cos they’re just another gang.  There is nothing wrong with this film. It’s a snapshot of an anti-romantic world which we believe to be utterly true, and no higher compliment can you give a film. Mitchum is so good and gives such a committed performance as this determinedly anti-heroic loser that you cannot think of anyone else in the role. You believe a guy would shut a drawer on this bozo’s hand. The tone is just right, the danger palpable, the parameters real, the tension total. We’re looking at the world of Whitey Bulger and his gang in reality (Peter Boyle is Dillon, the avatar for Bulger, although Higgins denied the connection). Mitchum wanted to meet some of the real crims but was cautiously directed elsewhere although cast member Alex Rocco (he plays bank robber Jimmy Scalise) who had been associated with the Winter Hill gang and served a prison term during the Boston Irish Gang Wars in the Sixties prior to his name change and a Hollywood career may have made some introductions to the man who actually killed the prototype for Coyle. Let’s talk about screenwriter Monash who was a producer and TV scriptwriter (Peyton Place, among others) but really wanted to write a great novel. He was so good that Orson Welles tapped him to do rewrite work on Touch of Evil but for those of us who grew up in the Eighties he’s the guy who brought Salem’s Lot to the screen putting me at least behind a cushion and a couch to bridge the distance from the screen in order to somehow stop the fear (it didn’t); as well as a fantastic TVM remake of All Quiet on the Western Front, the series V and a very memorable film about Huey Long, Kingfish. Let’s not forget the wonderful British director Peter Yates who brings all his considerable weight and lightness of touch to this incredibly atmospheric production.  He’s made some of my favourite movies including Bullitt and Breaking Away, The Hot RockEyewitness and this. He directed my friend Shane Connaughton’s quasi-autobiographical Irish production The Run of the Country and was responsible for a fantastic mini-series of Don Quixote starring John Lithgow. Not only that, he managed the legendary racer Stirling Moss in his heyday. Good grief I love the man! This is great, resonant filmmaking, desperate, downbeat and convincing with an incredible cast, including my beloved Joe Santos, Margaret Ladd and Helena Carroll. Listen to that dialogue:  it’s rare, raw and relentless. With friends like these, well, you know.  I shoulda known better than to trust a cop. My own goddamn mother coulda told me that

Labyrinth (1986)

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You remind me of the babe.  Bratty 16-year old Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) must find her young brother Toby (Toby Froud) whose crying is driving her crazy and whom she has wished away to the Jareth the Goblin King (David Bowie), a character in the play she’s rehearsing. To find him she has to enter a maze and has just 13 hours to do so or have her baby brother transformed into a goblin at midnight. With the help of a two-faced dwarf called Hoggle she negotiates all the tests and obstacles including a talking worm, creatures called Fireys who try to remove her head, and a goblin army on the march…  I ask for so little. Just fear me, love me, do as I say and I will be your slave. Nutty enchantment in a musical fantasy collaboration between puppetmaster Jim Henson and illustrator Brian Froud with Monty Python’s Terry Jones providing the screenplay (although other writers were involved:  George Lucas, Laura Phillips, Dennis Lee, Elaine May… and it owes a deal to both Lewis Carroll and Maurice Sendak) which got a roasting upon release but has proven its credentials with the passing of time and is now a determined cult and kids’ classic. Beautifully imagined and executed with a wicked stepmother, a baby in peril and toys that come to magical life in an ancient labyrinth and wicked creatures in the woods, this is just a perfect film fairytale, a story enabling a child to do battle with the grown ups in her life, a darkly romantic and dangerous outside world never far from her door. Bowie’s performance is of course something of legend, while Connelly and the puppets are the mainstay of the ensemble. Do you dare to eat the peach in this phallic kingdom of the subconscious?! Puppetry:  puberty. Discuss. Quite wonderful. You have no power over me!

Us (2019)

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Once upon a time, there was a girl and the girl had a shadow. The two were connected, tethered together. Accompanied by her husband Gabe (Winston Duke), son Jason (Evan Alex) and daughter Zora (Venus Williams lookalike Shahadi Wright Joseph), Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o) returns to the lakeside home at Santa Cruz CA where she grew up. Haunted by a traumatic experience from 1986 when she entered the funhouse at the pier and encountered her doppelganger, subsequently becoming electively mute,  Addie grows increasingly concerned that something bad is going to happen but agrees to go to the beach where they meet their friends Josh Tyler (Tim Heidecker) and his wife Kitty (Elisabeth Moss) and their twin daughters. They have a better house, car and boat than the Wilsons. Jason wanders off at the beach and Addie grows frantic. Her fears soon become a reality when four masked strangers descend upon the house, forcing the Wilsons into a fight for survival. When the masks come off, the family is horrified to learn that each attacker takes the appearance of one of them and they have to fight to the death with Addie finally facing up to what happened thirty years ago … Who are you people?/ We’re Americans. Dontcha just hate it when the people who break into your home look exactly like you? This second outing for Jordan (Get Out) Peele gives the game away when it enters comedic territory for its second hour. And in the penultimate sequence, when Gabe says to the children Leave it to your mother, she’ll know what to do, we get a hint as to the final twist – and precisely what he may have known about his wife all along. You’ll probably figure it out from the poster. This take on – what? impostor syndrome? race relations? slavery? the Other? the base versus the superstructure? people who live underground in tunnels?! rich versus poor? Mexico?! –  wants to be so much more than it is. On the other hand, it nods towards horror tropes quite cleverly with Nyong’o being a very modern Final Girl – of a sort. It’s not remotely scary despite its publicity campaign. There are a lot of rabbits:  breeding like … I don’t know, people who want to make the US great again?! The tilt towards pantomime brings out some spectacularly bad acting – thank you, Ms Moss! – and rather rubs our faces in some crude rap to make a point about society and Reagan-era politics with a telling mention of South of the Border and then goes and robs the ending from the great Mad Men. What a cheek! It’s well set up and crafted but has some diffuse ideas about things that remain stubbornly unresolved so ultimately isn’t about anything at all, if you ask me. Sigh. Too many twins around here

The Kremlin Letter (1970)

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You’re a fool.  What’s worse, you’re a romantic fool. When an unauthorised letter is sent to Moscow alleging the U.S. government’s willingness to help Russia attack Red China, US Navy Intelligence Officer Charles Rone (Patrick O’Neal) has his commission revoked so he can do an extra-governmental espionage mission.  He’s speaks eight languages fluently and has a flawless photographic memory. He and his team are sent to retrieve the letter, going undercover and successfully reaching out to Erika (Bibi Andersson), the wife of a former agent now married to the head of Russia’s secret police, Kosnov (Max von Sydow). Their plans are interrupted, however, when their Moscow hideout is raided by cunning politician Bresnavitch (Orson Welles) and Rone finds himself being played by a network of older spies seeking revenge .My father says bed is integral to this and one must be good at it. Adapted by director John Huston with his regular collaborator Gladys Hill (who began as dialogue director on Welles’ The Stranger) from Noel Behn’s 1966 novel, this complex canvas of betrayal, treason, murder and double cross is in a line with Huston’s film noir period with a soupçon of Beat the Devil‘s absurdism. Its convoluted plot is best appreciated in response to the hijinks of Bond with its determinedly low-key approach allowing the banal thuggery of the spy master to be revealed. The cast is astonishing – Richard Boone as Ward, the peroxide instigator capable of literally anything, sadism, torture and murder;  two Bergman alumni united in transcontinental jiggery pokery; George Sanders playing piano in drag at a gay nightclub and worse, with a penchant for knitting; Barbara Parkins as Niall MacGinnis’ safe-cracking daughter; Vonetta McGee as a Lesbian seductress;  Nigel Green as The Whore, another old spy keen on playing dress up; Lila Kedrova as a Russian brothel keeper;  and Welles’ Gate Theatre mentor Micheál MacLiammóir shows up – in fact he’s the first character we encounter. A crazy cast in a fascinating Cold War timepiece that requires keen attention. Even so, it’s a stretch to have dour O’Neal pose as a gigolo to win Andersson’s affections. Still, Ted Scaife’s cinematography is a thing of beauty. Never mind the story, feel the wit. Huston appears early as the Admiral who gives Rone his marching papers. If you believe in a cause no danger is frightening

The Man Who Would Be King (1975)

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Now listen to me you benighted muckers. We’re going to teach you soldiering. The world’s noblest profession. When we’re done with you, you’ll be able to slaughter your enemies like civilised men.  The exploits of Peachy Carnehan (Michael Caine) and Danny Dravot (Sean Connery), a  pair of English military officers stationed in India in the 1880s. Tired of life as soldiers, the two travel to the isolated land of Kafiristan, barely known since it was conquered by Alexander the Great, where they are ultimately embraced by the people and revered as rulers. After a series of misunderstandings, the natives come to believe that Dravot is a god, but he and Carnehan can’t keep up their deception forever and when Dravot takes a fancy to local beauty Roxanne (Shakira Caine) his god-like demeanour is finally unmasked…  He wants to know if you are gods./Not Gods – Englishmen. The next best thing. This adaptation of a short story by Rudyard Kipling is one of the very best action adventures ever made: characterful, funny, brilliantly staged and performed. Director John Huston had wanted to make it so long that he had hoped to film it with Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart. Indeed, there are clear connections with this and his The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, as well as Gunga Din. The imperialist story is really a parody of the desire for power. This country isn’t big enough for these good-natured overreachers! Their friendship is wittily explored and Christopher Plummer as Kipling is easily a match for the well-cast leads while Saeed Jaffrey makes for a marvellous Billy Fish, the sole Gurkha soldier remaining of a failed British expedition. Deftly told with non-stop action, this is a vivid, spirited and sublime, self-aware entertainment.  Adapted by Huston and his long-time collaborator, Gladys Hill.  Now Peachy, different countries, different ways. Tell Ootah we have vowed not to take a woman until all his enemies are vanquished

Mom and Dad (2017)

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It’s not my fault you don’t have a life. A mass hysteria of unknown origins causes parents to turn violently on their own children. Carly (Anne Winters) is a selfish teen and her young brother Joshua (Zachary Arthur) is obsessed with superheroes. They are the children of permanently disappointed Brent (Nicolas Cage) and Kendall (Selma Blair) whose dreams of a good life are hanging on a thread of yoga and a pool table. At school a TV signal seems to rewire the teachers’ brains and the students are in danger. Meanwhile Kendall attends the birthing room at the local hospital where her sister is having a baby but she tries to kill it when the machines go down. Kendall races home where Brent is losing it and the children are taking refuge in the basement  … It’s like they’re waiting for a buffet. A funny take on parenting during a mass midlife crisis in the ‘burbs, this nods to Poltergeist in the TV white noise that seems to trigger violence in all the moms and dads.  There’s also a reference to Night of the Living Dead as Carly’s cool boyfriend Damon (Robert T. Cunningham) happens to be the African-American who rocks up on time to help when things get seriously violent. Curiously the action sequences are not particularly well tooled but things get more amusing when grandpa (Lance Henriksen) arrives to let his son know how much he cares for him. Blair is great as the cool mom who protects her sister’s newborn one moment and tries to gas her own kids the next. Cage (naturally) relishes the role of the man bemoaning his cottage cheese ass, reminiscing over a teenage car crash when his topless girlfriend gave him a lap dance. Doesn’t quite hit all the notes needed for cult classic status but the titles are fabulous in a Seventies-trash homage sorta fashion with Dusty Springfield’s Yesterday When I Was Young giving us absolutely no idea of what’s about to unfold:  an ode to power saws. Written and directed by Brian (Crank) Taylor. I used to think my parents’ divorce was the worst tragedy of my life but ironically that just doubled my chances of survival!

Kansas City Confidential (1952)

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I know a sure cure for a nosebleed: a cold knife in the middle of the back. A mysterious fellow, Tim Foster (Preston Foster) contacts a trio of criminals Pete, Boyd and Tony (Jack Elam, Neville Brand and Lee Van Cleef) to help with a bank heist. The four wear masks and remain strangers to each other, planning to reunite in Mexico to divvy up the loot. Joe Rolfe (John Payne), a down on his luck former GI and ex-con trying to go straight that they framed to take the heat, gets his charges dropped, and the police offer him a reward if he can help recover the cash. But only after they beat up and torture him. He agrees, and when one of the thieves meets his end, Rolfe assumes his identity to catch the crooks… What’s waiting for you, Harris? The chair, the gas chamber, or just a rope? Like all good little noirs, there are lessons to be learned and a steep moral curve is there if you’re looking for it but mainly this is a well managed, pacy heist movie with bristling dialogue. Star Payne and director Phil Karlson did uncredited work on the sharp script attributed to Harold Green and Rowland Brown (story) and George Bruce and Harry Esssex (screenplay). Payne was once famed screenwriter Robert Towne’s father-in-law and had an interesting career, mainly a song and dance man and mostly famous for appearing in Miracle on 34th Street, but then becoming an interesting character actor. This particular production was part of a seven-picture deal with Pine-Thomas Productions to which he eventually obtained the rights. He had showed his dramatic chops paired with Claudette Colbert in Remember the Day and later in The Razor’s Edge and this particular cycle of action/crime films would conclude with Technicolor noir Slightly Scarlet. He then had his own western TV series, The Restless Gun, which ran for two seasons, in which daughter Julie appeared. Her daughter Katharine Towne is now an actress too, carrying on the family tradition. This is an effective thriller, briskly directed by Karlson and performed to the hilt by an ensemble to beat the band – some of those lowlifes are among my favourite character actors, with Coleen Gray and Dona Drake in nice supporting roles. The armoured car heist is superbly simply done in a tough as nails actioner that must have inspired Reservoir DogsIt don’t take no big thinking to figure a couple of guys like us ain’t in this bananaville on a vacation!

Spinning Man (2018)

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One’s experience of guilt is a conditioned response which objective reasoning can  overcome… Evan Birch (Guy Pearce) is a family man and published professor of the philosophy of language at a distinguished university, where his charm and reputation have made his class very popular. When a female student named Joyce (Odeya Rush) goes missing, Evan’s previous extra-marital liaisons make his wife Ellen (Minnie Driver) question his alibi. Gruff but meticulous police Detective Malloy (Pierce Brosnan) has even more reason to be suspicious when crucial evidence makes Evan the prime suspect in the girl’s disappearance… Does his behaviour makes his arguments any less valid? George Harrar’s tricksy novel gets a taut adaptation by Matthew Aldrich but it’s oddly directed by Simon Kaijser who’s chosen to shoot everything through a ghastly and offputting green filter as though every shot were there to prove Pearce is a serial killer with several shots at hip-high angle which makes it even odder. However there are enough red herrings and details in the performances to make this a diverting mystery. The protagonist even spends time laying mousetraps which is a nice metaphor for his own predicament. And ours, in point of fact. We are being played with. Truth is relative, as Birch tells his students. You’ll probably figure this out before the conclusion but it’s a bit of fun getting there. Pearce is good as a highly suspect individual – a practised liar with memory issues who is catnip to female students and lusts after the girl in the hardware store.  It’s a role that has clear reminders of his breakout film Memento.  Brosnan meanwhile plays it close to his chest as the man on his tail who tells him they’re both in the business of proof.  I can’t move again:  Driver’s eyes betray a recent makeover. Sigh. Prove this chair exists/ What chair? 

Halloween (1978)

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Every kid in Haddonfield thinks this place is haunted. On a cold Halloween night in 1963, six year old Michael Myers brutally murdered his 17-year-old sister, Judith. He was sentenced and locked away for 15 years in a sanitarium for the childhood murder of his older sister Judith. Now it’s October 30, 1978 and while being transferred for a court date 21-year-old Michael (Nick Castle) steals a car and escapes Smith’s Grove. He returns to his quiet hometown of Haddonfield, Illinois, where he looks for his next victims, stalking and killing promiscuous teenage babysitters on Halloween night. He targets Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) while being hunted down by his psychiatrist Samuel Loomis (Donald Pleasence) … I spent eight years trying to reach him, and then another seven trying to keep him locked up, because I realized that what was living behind that boy’s eyes was purely and simply… evil.  John Carpenter and Debra Hill’s cunning screenplay dissects and reconstructs the slasher movie and places it in the suburbs where carefree teens drink and drug and play around unaware that their grisly deaths are imminent as light briefly illuminates the dangerous darkness. The movies’ first properly famous virginal Final Girl is immortalised by Curtis in her screen debut, cast in her mother Janet’s immense Psycho shadow. On the one hand this is a clever homage and pastiche of feminist and misogynistic tropes;  on the other it’s a towering work of terror and one of the greatest horror films ever made, the granddaddy of them all.  Dazzling. You’ve fooled them, haven’t you, Michael? But not me