Kalifornia (1993)

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What the hell did I know about California? For some people it was still a place of hopes and dreams, a chance to start over. Graduate journalism student Brian Kessler (David Duchovny) has published an article about serial killers that secures an offer for a book deal. He and his girlfriend Carrie Laughlin (Michelle Forbes), an avant garde photographer, decide to relocate to California in hopes of enriching their careers. The two plot their journey from Louisville, Kentucky to Los Angeles,planning to visit infamous murder sites along the way which Carrie can photograph for Brian’s book. Trouble is, they’re short of money so Brian posts a ride-share ad on campus. Psychopathic recent parolee Early Grayce (Brad Pitt) has just lost his job. His parole officer learns of this and comes to the trailer where Early lives with his naïve girlfriend waitress Adele Corners (Juliette Lewis). Early refuses the officer’s offer of a job as a janitor at the university, saying he wants to leave the state, but the officer pressures him into keeping his appointment for the job interview. When Early arrives at the campus, he sees the ride-share ad and calls Brian, who agrees to meet him the following day and the mismatched foursome take off cross-country one hour after Early has murdered his landlord. Carrie has immediate misgivings when she sees the white trash pair and becomes very scared when Early and Brian start drinking together and Brian becomes infatuated with guns … Tell me, big shot, how you gonna write a book about something you know nothing about? It’s a neat concept:  a guy obsessed with serial killers ends up sharing a ride with a serial killer and then becomes inured to the effects of that violent experience when it’s finally him or – him. It’s constructed as though this were the rite of passage for a writer of such true crimes giving him a taste for murder albeit the closing voiceover indicates he has learnt nothing because he feels nothing. So maybe we’re in the realm of unfulfilled masculinity – so much of this narrative is tied into sex and instinct. Perhaps it’s too self-satisfied, perhaps Pitt’s performance as the kinky white trailer trash is too eccentric, Lewis too retarded, Forbes too knowing, Duchovny too withdrawn. These are people whose paths would never ordinarily cross however they’re in a car together having to deal with each other. On the other hand it’s a cool piece of work with a kind of sociocultural commentary about how we are bumping up against people we disagree with on a daily basis, how some elitists have a kind of fascination for the going-nowhere working classes, how pure intellect is rarely a match for feral intuition and how serial killers can attain a celebrity that transcends mere notoriety into a form of acceptability because it is no longer possible to move us in a world where so much is abandoned and empty. It’s no accident that the finale takes place at Dreamland, the old nuclear testing site and fake town on the California-Nevada border. Originally written by Tim Metcalfe with Stephen Levy, this appears to have changed substantially in tone in development. Directed like a stylishly cool breeze by Dominic Sena in his feature debut. I’ll never know why Early Grayce became a killer. I don’t know why any of them did. When I looked into his eyes I felt nothing, nothing

Gunfighters (1947)

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We’ve either got to run this country with our guns or without ’em. We can’t go on with this halfway thing. In Texas, gunfighter Brazos Kane (Randolph Scott) decides to lay down his guns and rides out to visit his best friend only to come across the aftermath of his murder. When Brazos takes the body to the nearby ranch of the powerful Banner (Griff Barnett), the rancher accuses him of the murder and he is saved from hanging by diner proprietor Uncle Joe/Jose (Steven Geray) who remembers him from way back. He passes the murderer’s bullet to a beautiful ranching woman Jane Banner (Dorothy Hart). Banner’s other daughter, Bess (Barbara Britton), takes the vital piece of evidence, leaving Brazos to evade Banner and a crooked Sheriff Kiscaden (Charles Kemper) as he reluctantly takes up arms to prove his innocence discovering that Bess’ real love interest Banner ranch foreman Bard Macky (Bruce Cabot) is the likely culprit … I believe I’m more interested in you than anything that ever wore boots. This fine adaptation of Zane Grey’s 1941 novel Twin Sombreros has a zesty approach and a liveliness that reverberates through a cast well served with sharp writing from the pen of Alan Le May, the writer of The Searchers. Scott is dependable as the decent guy wrongly identified as a killer and then facing corruption and he has some excellent setpieces in a screenplay that’s filled with smart lines (including a running joke about food) and good character roles. Charley Grapewin is fun as Rancher Inskip and Geray as Uncle Joe/Jose is particularly well used to fill in the backstory on Brazos. The tension arises from Brazos’ refusal to wear guns but we know it’s only a matter of time and when it happens, gosh darn it, if he doesn’t go and say, Any time you feel lucky! like a prototype for Dirty Harry. He has a nice ruminative voiceover to top and tail the movie.  It’s beautiful to look at too, with CineColor cinematography by Fred Jackman Jr. It was shot in Andy Jauregui Ranch and Monogram Ranch in Newhall, California, Vasquez Rocks Natural Area Park in Agua Dulce, California, and Sedona, Arizona. One can only pray the horses were well treated because they are worked hard in this story. Hart and Britton are delectable as lookalike sisters:  Wonder what she wants?/Depends on which one it is! It’s an interesting narrative development to have Scott’s affections apparently transfer from one to the other, although Hart is utterly luminous like a fashion plate come to life in her feature debut, Britton served as the love interest in a lot of westerns of the period and the tussle between them is highly entertaining and more inventive than good twin/bad twin. Now you’d even ride off with a different man if you thought that would helpIt’s produced by Harry Joe Brown with whom Scott would make a cycle of great films in the Fifties but this era is intrinsic to understanding how that one came about. Directed by George Waggner . I sure rode the heck out of that wild bunch

Wild Rose (2018)

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I’m not a criminal though, I’m an outlaw. Rose-Lynn Harlan (Jessie Buckley), an aspiring country singer and single mother of two from Glasgow is released from prison after a twelve-month sentence for attempted drug smuggling. She goes to her boyfriend’s council flat and has sex with him before reuniting with her mother Marion (Julie Walters) who’s been taking care of her young daughter Wynonna (Daisy Littlefield) and son Lyle (Adam Mitchell). She learns that she has lost her job in the house band at Glasgow’s Grand Ole Opry, as a result of her stint away. Marion encourages her to give up her dream of becoming a musician to focus on more practical matters and take responsibility for her family:  Rose-Lynn has never stuck at anything, can’t play an instrument and has never written a song. She takes a job as a cleaner to wealthy Susannah (Sophie Okenedo) who hears her singing and promises to sponsor her to get Rose-Lynn’s hero BBC DJ Bob Harris to listen to her and fulfil her fantasy en route to the real Grand Ole Opry in Nashville … That’s the end of cleaning floors for you.  From a screenplay by Nicole Taylor, this is implausible, irritating and overly generous to its protagonist. In other words, it’s a lot like a country song (not a country and western song, as she has to keep reminding people in her thick Glaswegian accent) and the minutes occasionally drag like hours.  It’s hard to watch a woman be so cruel to small children who she had as a promiscuous teenager and proceeds to ignore even after a year in the slammer. In a film that can’t make up its mind whether it’s a social realist drama (her bed is even shot to look like it’s in a prison cell) or the biopic of a music legend (like all country movies to date) who actually isn’t one, even in her own house, it mints a jawdropping black saviour trope, although Susannah’s streetwise hubby sees through Rose’s act (literally) and hearing some home truths snaps her out of her daydreaming. This feckless girl is such a screwup she even gets pissed on the potentially life-changing train journey to see ‘Whispering’ Bob Harris at the BBC in London and has her bag and money stolen. Perhaps it’s meant to be colouring in her shady character but it’s a damning indictment of people who put themselves ahead of their kids despite the logic. Dramatically and emotionally this is deeply troublesome. Even basketcase Juliet Barnes in TV’s Nashville is better to her daughter. Buckley just looks morose when the script is giving her nothing to play. There are some nice moments towards the end when Walters cracks and a kind of rapprochement is achieved but it’s thin gruel. I blame reality TV:  in an extraordinary admission a few years ago one of these ‘talent’ show’s producers in the UK let slip the astonishing statistic that “80 per cent of our applicants are illegitimate.” Attention-seeking is a way of life for the working classes, innit. Saints preserve us all from delusional aggressive karaoke queens but this has the narrative shape of those bios, which makes the country angle feel tacked on. Herself a reality show graduate, Buckley has an easy charm, a lopsided mouth and can sing the bejesus out of anything but the narrative falls far short of what it should have been and the fantasy ending is built on air, the fish out of water premise turned on its head, back in Glasgow.  She didn’t earn it, actually. Beats mopping floors, I suppose. The score is by Jack Arnold and the songs covered include everyone from Primal Scream, actress/singer Mary Steenburgen and Anna McGarrigle. Directed by Tom Harper who previously directed Buckley in BBC’s adaptation of War and PeaceYou never stick at anything

Torture Garden (1967)

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I am very well known for my excursions into the unexplored regions of the mind. If five visitors will pay extra, devilish sideshow carny torture act Mr Diablo (Burgess Meredith) promises people an insight into their real natures – violent, greedy and ghoulish – as they experience a taste of their future. Adapted by Robert Bloch from his own short stories, this contains four, plus a postscript, all directed by Freddie Francis in their fourth collaboration.  Look at the shears!  Enoch: Greedy playboy Colin Williams (Michael Bryant) takes advantage of his dying uncle Roger (Maurice Denham) and falls under the spell of Balthazar, a man-eating cat. Terror Over Hollywood:  Anyone who knows the titles of all the films I’ve made since 1950 deserves a break.  Starlet Carla Hayes (Beverly Adams) discovers her immortal celluloid co-star Bruce Benton (Robert Hutton) like all other movie stars is an android and the secret cannot be made public. Mr Steinway:  You really do love music, don’t you? A possessed grand piano called Euterpe becomes jealous if concert pianist owner Leo Winston’s (John Standing) new lover Dorothy Endicott (Barbara Ewing) and takes revenge. The Man Who Collected Poe:  He really was the greatest collector. He even collected Edgar Allan Poe himself.  Poe collector and obsessive Ronald Wyatt (Jack Palance) murders another collector Lancelot Canning (Peter Cushing) over a very desirable item he refuses to show him only to find it is Poe (Hedger Wallace) himself...  These stories progressively improve with great production design, sharp narrative turns and surprises aplenty, until the masterful final Poe pastiche and an ingenious twist ending. A wonderfully spinechilling Amicus anthology practically perfect for Halloween. Produced by Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg.

 

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

 

Old Boys (2018)

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Model yourself on me and you won’t go wrong. Awkward but imaginative scholarship boy (Alex Lawther) helps the handsome but spectacularly dim school head boy and hero of their boarding school Henry Winchester aka The Mighty Winch (Jonah Hauer-King) pursue the fiery French Agnès (Pauline Étienne), daughter of a visiting teacher Babinot (Denis Ménochet) who is struggling for the past 18 years to produce his second novel … I’ll blast her with my charm bazooka! This Eighties-set comic drama starts with a very witty titles sequence, the typically upper class British schoolboys on a supposedly unique sports tradition which is really an outward bound torture session tramping through the mud, an experience likened to The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas in a low angle shot of the institution (resembling my own frightening alma mater), a piece of stripey uniform caught on the barbed wire demarcating it from the rest of civilisation (which appears to be Norfolk). I’m just not good at all this word shit, declares The Mighty Winch, a nice but thick joker who can do no wrong in the eyes of the school or indeed himself, so the truly smitten Amberson gets him to pose as a romantic à la Cyrano de Bergerac in a film which wears its French influences very happily with several songs dispersed on the soundtrack. This is about proving you are more than a labrador in trousers. That’s a line that could come from the mouth of comedian/actor Jack Whitehall which is interesting given that this is co-written by Freddy Syborn, his co-writer on TV show Bounty Hunters following their collaboration on Bad Education:  this guy has a recognisable writing voice combining tender observation with sleight of hand comments on the class system as well as a fondness for slapstick. The story gets emotional heft not just from Amberson’s helpless infatuation and his desire to make Agnès happy; but also from the to-and-fro of the French father-daughter as the novelist manqué depends on her to approve of his narrative choices (something that culminates in a bad romantic scene with Papa’s non-French speaking romantic interest). Let me show you what Planet Earth looks like. As for Agnès, she’s not just a romantic but a pragmatic wannabe set designer and knows that Berlin is where it’s happening (another amusing European narrative strand nodding to WW2, juxtaposed with a school screening of The Dambusters) which gives rise to a series of beautiful mini-theatres and greeting cards being unfolded to push the story further as the romantic correspondence and deception is pursued. So if this is as lightweight as those delicate messages’ construction it gains trenchancy from the ideas of multi-lingual co-operation. Someone, somewhere, behind these theatrical scenes is trying to tell us something. The screenplay is by Syborn and Luke Ponte; while it’s well directed by Toby MacDonald. They teach you all the ways you can die but only you can learn how to live

The Weaker Sex (1948)

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I wish I didn’t feel so cut off.   Widowed Martha Dacre (Ursula Jeans) tries to keep house and home together for her two serving daughters Helen (Joan Hopkins) who’s involved with radio officer Nigel (Derek Bond) and Lolly (Lana Morris) who’s going out with sailor Roddy (John Stone);  and servicemen billeted on her in Portsmouth, a naval base during WW2. While son Benjie (Digby Wolfe) is away in the Navy she has chosen to stay at home as a housewife, but when she learns that his ship has been damaged during the D Day landings, she regrets not taking a more active role in the war and works in a canteen and as a fire watcher. The family story moves forward from D-Day to VE-Day, the 1945 general election and on to 1948. Martha eventually re-marries to her late husband’s colleague, naval officer Geoffrey (Cecil Parker) who was one of those billeted on her and has become a father-figure to her son and daughters…  Oh dear, who’d be a mother? This British homefront drama was released three years following the conclusion of hostilities so it has the benefit of victorious hindsight as well as expressing the postwar era when everyone was completely obsessed with the lack of food. Adapted from actress Esther McCracken’s 1944 stage play No Medals by Paul Soskin with additional scenes created by Val Valentine to bring it up to the year of shooting, it’s a witty drama filled with resigned Keep Calm and Carry On messages underscored by dissatisfaction at the dreariness of housework and the plight of women whose life is dictated by the unavailability of food which becomes a thoroughly good running joke:  The housewives’ battle cry – the fishmonger’s got fish! cackles housekeeper Mrs Gaye (Thora Hird). Intended as post-war propaganda, a kind of decent British take on Hollywood’s Mrs Miniver (minus the Nazi in the garden) with added politics, it’s smart, unfussy and fair, yet trenchant and involving.  Jeans is terrific as the middle class woman finding herself rather (class) envious of Harriet Lessing (Marian Spencer) living in a serviced flat and volunteering:  there’s humour to be had in a lovely payoff when Harriet gets her public comeuppance after the war as rationing motivates her to head the local Militant Housewives League and she gets caught up in an unholy scrimmage which fetches up on the front page of the papers. Parker is a great casting choice – the guy not ashamed of being seen decked out in his uniform doing the vacuuming who can say unabashed to Jeans, I never had a genuinely platonic friendship with a woman before. Of course we know where that leads. He digs in and gets creative when he’s sick of being starved of regular food – and milks a goat. I slept and dreamed that life was beauty, I woke and found that life is duty. There is a great sense of warmth in the family relationships and a scene of remarkable tension when Helen and Martha play a card game awaiting a phonecall to find out whether Nigel has survived a bombing.  Jeans tells herself when awaiting more bad news, I mustn’t back down. I must try to be of some use. Parker responds, This language of ours is so completely inadequate. They are expressing the weariness of a nation almost done in yet somehow dragging itself up to cope with the inevitability of ongoing loss. There are occasional dips into newsreel montages to bring a context to the experiences as the story commences in the run up to D Day, through VE Day, the 1945 General Election, Hiroshima and after, but the footage is smoothly integrated and doesn’t disrupt the narrative flow. Hugely successful in its day it’s a really rather spiffing reminder of how and why Britain came through the war, the importance of family and sadly that tragic deaths don’t just occur in wartime. Crisply shot by Erwin Hillier amid exquisite sets by Alex Vetchinsky and this raft of wonderful performances are very well directed by Roy [Ward] Baker. Shabby perhaps, but not yet shoddy

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

Rendez-vous (1985)

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Men waltz around you. Aspiring and promiscuous teenage actress Nina (Juliette Binoche) arrives in Paris expecting success. She becomes involved with a gentle real estate agent Paulot (Wadeck Stanczak), his roommate, suicidal sex show performer Quentin (Lambert Wilson) and theatre director Scrutzler (Jean-Louis Trintignant) who ends up finally defining her life after her highly dysfunctional sexual liaisons … Do you hurt people often? A remarkably febrile, intense work whose eroticism seems tightly sprung and dangerous from the off with a powerhouse cast creating indelible characters totally upfront about sex. André Téchiné (working from a screenplay by himself and director to be, Olivier Assayas) turned La Binoche into a star in a role that went to her only when Sandrine Bonnaire proved unavailable and the canny casting includes Trintignant who had of course co-starred with Bardot in another sensual drama which broke new ground, Et dieu créa la femme. However it is Wilson’s moody, perverse and terminally volatile Quentin that lingers long in the memory, the tragic fulcrum and catalyst of so many desires in this ensemble. An astonishing, provocative film that still feels wanton and off limits.   I wasn’t afraid before

Au revoir, les enfants (1987)

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I’m the only one in this school that thinks about death. It’s incredible! In 1943, Julien (Gaspard Manesse) is a student at a French boarding school run by Catholic priests. When three new students arrive, including clever Jean Bonnet (Raphael Fejto), Julien believes they are no different from the other boys. What he doesn’t realise is that they are actually Jews who are being sheltered from capture by the Nazis. Julien doesn’t care for Jean at first but the boys develop a tight bond with grudging admiration of each other – while the head of the school, Père Jean (Philippe Morier-Genoud), works to protect the boys from the Holocaust.I understand the anger of those who have nothing when the rich feast so arrogantly. Louis Malle’s autobiographical tale of his time at  school in Fontainebleau is an artful depiction of the country’s great shame – the level of collaboration with the occupying Nazis, some of whom are rather sympathetically portrayed. This is a beautifully composed, sensitively handled and measured portrait of childhood with its petty rivalries and quarrels, preceding an act of revenge, accidental betrayal and a chilling climax in an atmosphere of casual spitefulness, denunciations and anti-semitism. One of the very best films of its era, this is a perfect companion to Malle’s earlier masterpiece, Lacombe, Lucien. Those who should guide us betray us instead