The Witches (1990)

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You can never be sure if it’s a witch you’re looking at or a kind lady. Little American boy Luke Eveshim (Jasen Fisher) is holidaying with his Norwegian grandmother Helga (Mai Zetterling) who regales him with stories of witches, female demons masquerading as normal women but possessing undending hatred of children.  Helga’s best friend in childhood was entrapped by one of them in a painting and eventually faded from view. When Luke’s parents die his grandmother becomes his guardian and sends him to boarding school where he evades the attention of one such witch (Anne Lambton) and during the holidays at a seaside resort Luke become aware that witches are holding their annual British convention as The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children led by the Grand High Witch (Anjelica Huston).  When he and another boy Bruno (Charlie Potter) are in their midst they encounter a life-changing transformation into mice and have to avoid all sorts of predators as they try to escape to safety experiencing an actual cat and mouse chase … Real witches hate children! Adapted by Allan Scott from Roald Dahl’s darkly comic book, the biggest surprise to fans of Nicolas Roeg is that he directed it (perhaps not when you consider he had young sons at the time) but it has some of his recognisable tropes as well as a crew of his regular collaborators, including Scott, costumier Marit Allen and editor Tony Lawson in a production from Henson Studios with all that firm’s puppeteering and effects skills to the fore. The trick of balancing realism with fantasy, humour with horror, and scares for children (Roeg edited out more morbid material after seeing one of his children’s reactions) with jokes for adults, is perfectly achieved in this ambitious comic drama with Huston camping it up appositely to Zetterling’s caring grandmother. How is the room service here?/Diabolical./ Good! A third of the film is the adventure the boys have as mice, attempting to avoid becoming part of the hotel’s dinner menu, and there’s a marvellous payoff with formerly fat Bruno achieving his mother’s (Brenda Blethyn) ambition that he lose weight. The (happy) ending is different from that in the book and Dahl hated it and threatened to publicly campaign against it (Jim Henson dissuaded him) but overall it retains his casual cruelty and wit. Stanley Myers’ score is amped up with excerpts from Dies irae here and there to sound like Berlioz’ The Witches’ Sabbath. Shot in Bergen, Newquay and at Bray Studios, this was the last feature to involve the great Henson and the final one of Dahl’s books to be adapted prior to his own demise. A foolish witch without a brain, must sizzle into fire and flame! A witch who dares to say I’m wrong, will not be with us… VERY LONG!

 

 

King Kong (1933)

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Every legend has the basis of truth. Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) needs to finish his movie and has the perfect location – faraway Skull Island. But he still needs to find a leading lady. This is Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) who’s done a little extra work but has never played a large role. She has a romance aboard Captain Englehorn’s (Frank Reicher) ship the Venture with John Driscoll (Bruce Cabot). No one knows what they will encounter on this island but once they reach it they find terrified natives seemingly worshipping a giant and the beast now has Ann in his sights and she is quickly kidnapped. Carl and John have to make their way through the jungle looking for Kong and Ann, whilst avoiding all sorts of prehistoric creatures and once successful they determine to transport Beast back to New York City to publicise their new movie … Women don’t mean to be a bother. Gorgeous, eerie and inventive, with a fairytale theme that resonates through the ages, this is a classic of Pre-Code Hollywood and is so clever in its structure:  before she ever encounters Beast, Ann is filmed rehearsing her potential reaction to a monster, so we are always present in the moviemaking process and the notion of predatory males hangs over the story like a fug. A warning about civilisation, greed and Hollywood itself, this is one of the most brilliant, beautiful and tender films ever made. Directed by Merian C. Cooper (the miniatures) and Ernest B. Schoedsack (the dialogue scenes) although neither is credited; with magical stop-motion effects by Willis O’Brien and an original story by Cooper and Edgar Wallace, with uncredited rewrites by James Ashmore Creelman who was working on The Most Dangerous Game (also starring Wray) at the time; with a final rewrite by Ruth Rose, who was Schoedsack’s wife.  It was beauty killed the beast

Joker (2019)

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Don’t you have to be funny to be a comedian?  Former psych hospital inmate, children’s party clown and wannabe standup Arthur ‘Happy’ Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) lives with his sick mother Penny (Frances Conroy) and dreams of appearing on Murray Franklin’s (Robert De Niro) cheesy nightly TV show which they watch together. Gotham City is rife with crime and unemployment, leaving segments of the population disenfranchised and impoverished with billionaire Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) in the running for Mayor. Penny was a former employee in the Wayne household and repeatedly writes him letters asking for money. Arthur suffers from a disorder that causes him to laugh at inappropriate times, and depends on social services for medication and weekly meetings with a social worker. After a gang attacks him in an alley, Arthur’s co-worker, Randall (Glenn Fleshler) gives him a gun for self-defence. Arthur invites his neighbour, cynical single mother Sophie (Zazie Beetz), to his stand-up comedy show, and they begin dating. When he witnesses three Wall Street guys harassing a woman on the subway train he opens fire and kills them and the city is suddenly awash in a movement of men in clown masks that threatens violent disorder in copycat clown costumes  … I used to think that my life was a tragedy, but now I realise, it’s a comedy. A perverse DC origins story written by director Todd Phillips with Scott Silver, this owes much to its setting – 1981, a city on its haunches, with human filth and institutional grime, and cinematic influences: Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy and of course Taxi Driver (Paul Schrader’s real-life inspiration was Arthur Bremer) which is interesting in the light of the maestro’s recent (highly derogatory) comments on superhero movies. And there’s Travis Bickle/Rupert Pupkin himself, De Niro, as the Jerry Lewis-type prism for Arthur’s fantasies of celebrity. And it’s modelled on classic psychodrama, up to a point. It hedges its bets by flailing determinedly in all directions ticking the usual boxes – sociological, pathological, neurological, daddy issues, a mad mother, illegitimacy, until its second hour descends into predictable ultraviolence (after that first exhibition at 30 minutes) albeit with this raft of reasons the wind at his back, you can’t blame Arthur, which is of course the whole point of this graphic novel brought to life. He’s a product of everything around him as well as the noises in his head so there’s no mystery left unturned. That neurological condition that makes him laugh long and loud and inappropriately turns into an unwelcome noise in the audience’s collective head too because we can see as he cannot that his talent lies not in comedy but in killing. Gotham City is no longer a pretend New York because the first three victims of Arthur’s vigilanteism are Wall Street employees of his all-powerful putative father, which is how the Wayne story is woven into this tapestry of excuses as if someone had written an elaborate series of backstories and decided to use every single one of them:  Oedipus writ large in a realist portrait of Bernhard Goetz-era NYC. There is literally nothing left to chance or ponder about this ugly individual and as we all know, bastards always blame other people and seek revenge for their no-name status. In this amorality tale he murders his mother to attempt to get close to his alleged father. And we all know what happens to Thomas Wayne because the Batman universe is ours.  It’s difficult to fault Phoenix’s bravura performance but much hinges on his harelip and innate ugliness which he just accentuates into unpleasant anorectic thinness to manufacture an urban monster. This Joker isn’t funny any more. How bizarre that the wonderful River Phoenix died 26 years ago today and it’s his brother Leaf who’s making the headlines. I feel like I know you – I’ve been watching you forever

 

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

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

Circus of Fear (1966)

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Aka Psycho-CircusCircus of Terror/ Das Rätsel des silbernen Dreieck / Mystery of the Silver Triangle/ Scotland Yard auf heißer Spur. I wonder if we have something in common with the murderer.  We’re both looking for the same thing. In the aftermath of a daring armoured car heist on London’s Tower Bridge that ends with the murder of a security guard, police detective Jim Elliott (Leo Genn) follows a trail of clues to the travelling Barberini Circus, which has just passed through the city. Though he suspects a conspiracy under the big top, he discovers strained relations between the disfigured lion tamer Gregor (Christopher Lee) and his associates and colleagues who include owner Barberini (Anthony Newlands), ringmaster Carl (Heinz Drache), bookkeeper and wannabe clown Eddie (Eddi Arent), knife-thrower Mario (Maurice Kaufmann) and a dwarf called Mr Big (Skip Martin). Elliot struggles to find his man – and recover the stolen cash – in a maze of blackmail and deceit that concludes in a sharp-edged dénouement courtesy of Mario …  Why must these things always happen at the weekend? Written by producer Harry Alan Towers (as Peter Welbeck) and based on Again The Three Just Men by Edgar Wallace, whose prolific work had just spawned another series of adaptations at Merton Park Studios, this is a British take on the German krimi genre and happily has Klaus Kinski as the mysterious Manfred among a terrific cast numbering Suzy Kendall as Gregor’s niece Natasha, Cecil Parker as Sir John of the Yard, and Victor Maddern as Mason the unfortunate who uses a gun, with Lee in a mask rather defeating his key role but leading to a key unveiling in the third act. Genn is a bit of a PC Plod rather than an intuitive ‘tec but his role winds up anchoring the narrative and he’s nicely sardonic if secondary to the overly complex and twisty plot of the circus crowd’s behind the scenes antics with red herrings and dead ends dangling everywhere. Mostly nicely handled by cinematographer Ernest Steward with some interesting shot setups and well paced by director John [Llewellyn] Moxey. The opening scene is smartly achieved without dialogue and the final summing up scene is a high wire act quite different from what you’d see in Agatha Christie. Werner Jacobs directed the German version which has an alternative ending and was released in black and white. I do like to respect a man’s privacy but in a criminal case there’s really no such thing

The Predator (2018)

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Did you not see the new Predator? It’s evolving. The universe’s most lethal hunters are stronger, smarter and deadlier than ever before, having genetically upgraded themselves with DNA from other species. Only a ragtag crew of ex-Marines (Keegan-Michael Key, Trevante Rhodes, Alfie Allen,Thomas Jane, Augusto Aguilera) led by renegade Army Ranger sniper Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook), whose autistic son (Jacob Tremblay) with estranged wife Emily (Yvonne Strahovski) accidentally triggers the Predator’s (Brian A. Prince) return to Earth, can stop the end of mankind.  With the help of kick-ass evolutionary biologist Casey Brackett (Olivia Munn) they launch an all-out attempt to tackle this new hybrid alien but also have to deal with treacherous Government agent Will Treager (Sterling K. Brown), director of The Stargazer Project ... Fuck me in the face with an aardvark. Part Four in the franchise and not just a sequel but a remake/reboot of the first one (1987) which was a rite of passage in the Eighties, one of the era’s defining films and auteur Shane Black was in it (in the supporting role of Rick Hawkins). And he brings to it his typical brand of smarts – witty dialogue, generic tropes souped up and remade faster and shinier while the Predator hunts and he himself is hunted. As we know from his other movies, Black likes kids and here he’s a bullied savant (upgraded with the very current condition of autism); instead of Christmas we have Halloween (bringing to mind E.T.); and the motley crew of mentally ill soldiers remind us of The Dirty Dozen except they’re not as nasty although that won’t save them. Beneath the message – re-design human DNA at your peril, appreciate the accidental genius Nature occasionally creates – it’s fast-moving, funny and most unusually for an actioner these days comes in at a trim 95 minutes. Bliss, of sorts.  Written by Fred Dekker & Black, from characters created by Jim Thomas and John Thomas. Nice reverse psychology. I can do that, too. Don’t go fuck yourself

IT Chapter Two (2019)

It Chapter Two

I can smell the stink of fear on you.  Defeated by members of the Losers’ Club, the evil clown Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) returns 27 years later to terrorise the town of Derry, Maine, once again and children start disappearing. Now adults, the childhood friends have long since gone their separate ways and are scattered over the US. Town librarian Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa) calls the others home for one final stand. Bill Denbrough (James McAvoy) is a successful mystery novelist in Los Angeles married to successful actress Audra Phillips (Jess Weixler). Like the others he is haunted by what happened but mostly because he has forgotten or blocked things from his mind – he sought revenge for the loss of his little brother Georgie. His on-set issues with the director (Peter Bogdanovich) of and adaptation of one of his novels arise from the ending which nobody likes, not even his wife, who’s been lying to him for years. Bespectacled and foul-mouthed Richie Tozier (Bill Hader) has become a successful stand-up comic in Los Angeles.  The overweight little boy Ben Hanscom (Jay Ryan) is now a handsome successful architect living in Nebraska. Hypochondriac Eddie Kaspbrak (James Ransone) is a risk assessor in NYC and his marriage to Myra seems to mirror his relationship with his mother. Georgia accountant Stanley Uris (Andy Bean) cannot bear the idea of a return to the town because he is simply too afraid. The group’s only girl Beverly Marsh (Jessica Chastain) is a successful fashion designer whose violent marriage replicates the bullying she endured as a child. Damaged by scars from the past, the united Losers must conquer their deepest fears to destroy the shape-shifting Pennywise – now more powerful than ever… You know what they say about Derry. No one who dies here ever really dies. The second half of Stephen King’s IT has a lot to overcome 2 years after the first instalment and 29 years after it was brought to the TV screen in a mini series. Burdened by over-expectation, hype, and a (mis)cast lacking chemistry, this sequel to the beloved and hugely successful first film aspires to the condition of Guillermo Del Toro movies for some percentage of its incredibly extended running time and wastes a lot of it delving into the past in several rather unnecessary flashback sequences in which some transitions work brilliantly, others not so much. However the mosaic of personal history and occasional flashes of insight accompanied by some black humour restore the narrative equilibrium somewhat even if we all know this is not really about some clown-spider hybrid living in the sewer beneath a small town in Maine. Bill’s arc with his writing is a metaphor for the need to find an ending to a lifetime of latent fear for all the protagonists (it hasn’t stopped him being a bestseller). Grappling with the psychological impact of trauma, child abuse and guilt, this movie is all about burying their root cause:  way to avoid therapy, dude. Surely Pennywise is the ultimate recidivist in a movie where home is a word not just to strike fear but actually has to be carved into someone’s chest rather than being uttered aloud. This is a group of adults who notably have not reproduced.  In the attempt to join up all their experiences coherently there is a ragged logic but it tests the viewer’s patience getting there and after a protracted standoff with Pennywise there is a partly satisfying conclusion where the past has to be physically revisited and replayed, even if the film never reaches the emotional depths or charm one would expect, perhaps because the reality of Pennywise is not more artfully probed:  those character threads are left fraying at the edges. A delight lies in seeing author King playing the pawnbroker selling Bill his old bike and refusing Bill’s offer to sign his novel  – because he doesn’t like Bill’s endings. It could be King’s comment on half the films he’s seen adapted from his own books, especially relevant in a movie that quotes The ShiningAdapted by Gary Dauberman and directed by Andy Muschietti.  You haven’t changed anything yet. You haven’t changed their futures. You-you haven’t saved any of them

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?

 

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