Bugsy (1991)

Bugsy

I don’t go by what other men have done. Gangster Ben ‘Bugsy’ Siegel (Warren Beatty), who works for Meyer Lansky (Ben Kingsley) and Charlie ‘Lucky’ Luciano (Bill Graham), goes west to Los Angeles and falls in love with Virginia Hill (Annette Bening) a tough-talking Hollywood starlet who has slept around with several men, as he is regularly reminded by his pals, who he meets on a film set where his friend George Raft (Joe Mantegna) is the lead.  He buys a house in Beverly Hills and shops at all the best tailors and furnishes his house beautifully while his wife Esta (Wendy Phillips) and young daughters remain in Scarsdale, New York. His job is to wrest control back of betting parlours currently run by Jack Dragna (Richard Sarafian) but life is complicated when Mickey Cohen (Harvey Keitel) robs one of his places – Bugsy decides to go into business with him instead of punishing him and puts him in charge of casinos, while Dragna is forced to admit to a raging Bugsy that he stole $14,000, and is told he now answers to Cohen. On a trip to a deadbeat casino in the desert Bugsy dreams up an idea for a casino to end all casinos, named after Virginia (Flamingo), bringing the stars to Nevada but the costs overrun dramatically and his childhood friend Lansky is not happy particularly when it seems Bugsy might be aware that Virginia has cooked the books … Looks matter if it matters how you look. Warren Beatty’s long-cherished project was written by James Toback and Beatty micro-managed the writing and production and the result is one of the most powerful and beautiful films of the Nineties:  a picture of America talking to itself, with a gangster for a visionary at its fulcrum, building a kingdom in the desert as though through damascene conversion while being seduced by Hollywood and its luminaries, watching his own screen test the most entertaining way to spend an evening other than having sex. It sows the seeds of his destruction because his inspiration is his thrilling and volatile lover and making her happy and making a name for himself but it’s also a profoundly political film for all that, as with most of Beatty’s work. It’s undoubtedly personal on many levels too not least because the legendarily promiscuous man known as The Pro in movie circles impregnated his co-star Bening who was already showing before production ended. They married after she had his baby and have remained together since. His avocation of the institution is an important part of the narrative and gangsterism is a version of family here too but he chases tail, right into an elevator and straight to his penthouse too. Perhaps he wants to show us how it’s done by the nattiest dresser in town. It’s a statement about how a nation came to be but unlike The Godfather films it’s one that demonstrates how the idea literally reflects the image of the man who dreams it up in all his vainglory:  he enjoys nothing more than checking his hair in the glass when he’s kicking someone half to death (perhaps a metaphor too far). He is a narcissist to the very end, charming and totally ruthless while Ennio Morricone gives him a tragic signature tune. Impeccably made and kind of great with outstanding performances by Beatty, Bening and Kingsley. Directed by Barry Levinson. I have found the answer to the dream of America

Manhunter (1986)

Manhunter

You want the scent? Smell yourself! Former FBI Agent Will Graham (William Petersen) is called out of early retirement by his boss Jack Crawford (Denis Farina) to catch a serial killer.  The media have dubbed him The Tooth Fairy (Tom Noonan) because he kills random families in their homes. Will is a profiler whose speciality is psychic empathy, getting inside the minds of his prey. The horror of the murders takes its toll on him. He asks for the help of his imprisoned arch-nemesis, Dr Hannibal Lecktor (Brian Cox) who gets to him like nobody else and nearly murdered him years earlier yet has insights into the methodology of the killer that could unlock the case… He butchers whole families to pursue trivial fantasies. As an adult, someone should blow the sick fuck out of his socks. The mindbending antics of Thomas Harris’ narcissistic creation Lecktor were first espied here but it’s really Will Graham’s story and what a surprise casting choice the introspective pigeon-toed Petersen seemed.  He carries this oppressively chilling thriller where he is the masochist to his targets’ sadistic mechanisms. The dispassionate style, the modernist interiors, the internal machinations of the protagonist’s obsessive inner voice while he inhabits the minds of his relentlessly morbid prey, lend this a hypnotic mood. As the action increases in intensity the colours and style of cinematographer Dante Spinotti become cooler and more distancing. The diegetic score by bands including Shriekback and The Reds is an immersive trip into the nightmarish vision. An extraordinary spin on terror that is as far from the camp baroque theatrics of The Silence of the Lambs as it is possible to imagine, this masterpiece has yet to be equalled in the genre and feels like a worm has infected your brain and is burrowing through it, out of your control, colouring your dreams, imprinting you with a thought pattern that may never depart. A dazzling exercise in perspective and perception, this is a stunning work of art. Adapted from Red Dragon by director Michael Mann. Does this kind of understanding make you uncomfortable?

Gemini (2017)

Gemini 2017

I want to kill you right now. When Hollywood actress Heather Anderson (Zoë Kravitz) is shot dead in her home, LAPD Detective Ahn (John Cho) becomes suspicious of her assistant, Jill LeBeau (Lola Kirke) whose gun is found beside her boss’s body. Jill, on the other hand, decides to investigate on her own and clear her name, uncovering a list of suspects in a tricky web of relationships including Heather’s ex-boyfriend Devin (Reeve Carney), girlfriend Tracy (Heather Lee), agent Jamie (Michelle Forbes), producer Greg (Nelson Franklin) whose passion project is destroyed by Heather’s decision not to do it and then there’s her lookalike superfan stalker Sierra (Jessica Parker Kennedy)… You think you understood Heather. Written and directed by Aaron Katz, this noir-ish thriller stars two of the most interesting young actresses around and a nice setting – contemporary Hollywood. The story of the personal assistant has been done elsewhere – notably by Kristen Stewart, in a different context; and previously by Julia Roberts to Catherine Zeta-Jones’ romcom queen – and it’s a loaded gun of a premise with this hipster iteration complicated by murder. However it’s let down by underpowered writing which teases and suggests, extending to the occasionally oblique shooting style, and that means the twist doesn’t entirely carry the weighty intensity it ought. The shadow of Mulholland Drive falls far into this indie story’s LA dark night of the soul but it boasts a great sense of the city’s architecture, from 24-hour laundromat to modernist mansion. Ricki Lake appears as a TV host offering the usual redemption narrative conduit; while Forbes, whose appearance is all too brief, is one of the coolest of the Nineties cool girls and it’s a shame the script didn’t give her more to do. A film that has inappropriate lightness where it ought to fill you with anticipatory dread, it still has an oddly haunting quality you can’t quite let go with its circle of women carving out lives and identities not quite separate from each other. You know how you said you didn’t feel safe?  I feel like that all the time

Out of Blue (2019)

Out of Blue

Can you explain your place in the universe? When well-connected black hole expert and astrophysicist Jennifer Rockwell (Mamie Gummer) is found shot at a New Orleans Observatory, police detective Mike Hoolihan (Patricia Clarkson) is put in charge of the investigation and questions her co-worker, observatory manager Professor Ian Strammi (Toby Jones) and her teaching colleague boyfriend Duncan Reynolds (Jonathan Majors). When she encounters Jennifer’s father Colonel Tom Rockwell (James Caan) she finds an intimidating figure, a well-known local businessman, famous soldier and POW who walks on a cane. His wife Miriam (Jacki Weaver) is a fidgeting fusspot, the twin sons Walt and Bray (Brad and Todd Mann) argumentative and odd. Their office is dominated by a family portrait. Similarities are noted by her colleague Aaron Tevit (Tony Silvero) and reporter Stella Honey (Devyn A. Tyler) with the unsolved murders of other blonde thirtysomething women from decades earlier where items were exchanged with the victims. Mike pursues the idea that Tom might have been responsible but then it becomes clear that Jennifer killed herself. When Mike finds a familiar brooch among Jennifer’s collection of vintage clothes and costume jewellery questions of the cosmos start to inform the solution … The catastrophic death of a star brings new life to the universe. We are all stardust.  This adaptation of Martin Amis’ 1997 genre novel Night Train has some changes but mostly it bears the marks of writer/director Carol Morley, a singular talent who likes to compose a flat frame with just enough textural detail to suggest complexity, a taste that lends itself perfectly to this atmospheric thriller which shows a less travelled side of New Orleans. Mike is a troubled former alcoholic with a spare lifestyle; while Jennifer’s home is filled with nick nacks and her recorded talks anchor the narrative:  We spend our lives trying to get to the heart of this dark energy. It’s other people who point to the clues in the past – a TV journalist and another police officer. The similarities to the .38 caliber gun murders are inescapable – the victims are all blonde and of a certain age and the killings stopped when Jennifer was born. The intriguing use of imagery – not just fetish objects like blue marbles, a pot of handcream, but the confusion as to whether Mike is fantasising, dreaming or even remembering – is conjoined with the theme of the stars and their influence. And with a hint of Chinatown hanging over a story about family and power, there’s a cute reference when Miriam leaps into Mike’s police car and pulls her nose: You know what happens to very nosy people?  They lose their noses! We are reminded of Polanski. The narrative raises questions about how society deals with war – just what kind of man walks out of three years’ imprisonment a hero? Clarkson is great as this unconventional woman who lets loose in a strip club:  There’s many ways to be a woman. There are black holes in the story itself with a wry running joke about cats in boxes (and not just Schrödinger’s). In my experience usually what’s in a sealed box is dead. In the end, this is not just about the murder mystery, it’s about where we come from, who we are, what formed us and what happened to us. In that sense, the final sequence is truly a revelation of personal history in a unique procedural narrative which grapples with a bigger cosmic picture. Produced by Luc Roeg with a score by Clint Mansell. The past is messy

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (2019)

John Wick 3

John Wick, Excommunicado. In effect, 6:00 p.m., Eastern Standard Time. After gunning down Santino d’Antonio, a member of the shadowy international assassins’ guild the High Table, hit man John Wick (Keanu Reeves) finds himself stripped of the organisation’s protective services. There’s a $14 million bounty on his head and he is on the run in New York City, the target of the world’s most ruthless killers and he tries to locate the Elder (Said Taghmaoui) the only person above the High Table empowered to take the price tag off his head … He shot my dog/I get it. Starting quite literally from the last shot of the second film in the trilogy about the world’s calmest hitman, this is breathless action fare that starts in New York Public Library of all places setting things in motion with a crucifix necklace and a medallion. What better storage facility for your jewels? Then things get seriously international and move to Morocco and the desert as this violent quest for a kind of redemption gets underway while John reconciles with his origins: he is actually Jardani Jovonovich of Belarus, which we learn courtesy of a drop in at Anjelica Huston’s ballet school. Reeves is as Zen-like as ever even when offing everyone in sight and his dog is the dog’s, as they say, although he mostly keeps out of trouble by residing at the Hotel Continental. A sinuous exercise in ultraviolence, this is actually very beautiful to watch. With Ian McShane back as John’s dubious caretaker Winston, Halle Berry sharing his love canines and Laurence Fishburne giving this a Matrix-y feeling, this has a lot of good moments bookended by two extraordinary sequences of skillfully choreographed action with – what else – a cliffhanging ending. Written by Derek Kolstad, Shay Hatten, Chris Collins and Marc Abrams, based on a story by Kolstad. Directed by Chad Stahelski. It wasn’t just a puppy

Final Analysis (1992)

Final Analysis.jpg

She chooses he who must choose her. San Francisco psychologist Isaac Barr (Richard Gere) is treating Diana Baylor (Uma Thurman) for OCD and she tells him of her particularly vivid dreams and difficult childhood. When he talks with her sister, Heather (Kim Basinger), about their troubled upbringing, he finds his attentions shifting away from his patient. Heather comes on to him, and he falls head over heels, leading to a secret affair complicated by Heather’s violently jealous Greek gangster husband, Jimmy (Eric Roberts). But the complications don’t end there, as Heather may or may not need some serious psychological help herself when she kills her husband while under the influence of alcohol ... Did any of these eighty-seven patients beat their spouses to death? You could make the case for this as an elaborate play on Hitchcockiana, particularly Vertigo, with actresses called Kim getting frisky in San Francisco; or it’s a discourse on the narrative aspects of Freud;  or it’s about the impact of child abuse; and the condition of pathological intoxication discussed here and occasionally induced when some of us watch Gere, never mind when Heather imbibes just one sip of alcohol. And it’s all of these things, together with another nod to Hitch with some great hairdos, numbering a brilliant frightwig for Paul Guilfoyle as District Attorney Mike O’Brien which he doesn’t sport in court, just in shadowy offices. And what about that fabulously phallic lighthouse!  Or you could just say that this is what it is – outrageously fun entertainment with Basinger showing us a huge range in a really great role from cowering terrified wife to deranged gun-wielding murderess. Screenwriter Wesley Strick (remember him?) based his premise on an idea by forensic psychiatrist Robert H. Berger (there were rewrites by TV comedy writer Susan Harris) and it’s directed by Phil Joanou who has made a brilliantly overwrought thriller with a stunningly multi-referential finale. Crazy good with atmospheric photography by Jordan Cronenweth whose final film this was. Sometimes a violet is just a violet

Under the Silver Lake (2018)

Under the Silver Lake poster.png

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?

 

Bad Times at the El Royale (2018)

Bad Times at the El Royale

Alright, yeah, I think it’s some kind of pervert hotel. It’s 1969. The El Royale is a run-down hotel that sits on Lake Tahoe on the border between California and Nevada. It soon becomes a seedy battleground when seven strangers – cleric Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), soul singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Ervio), a travelling vacuum cleaner salesman, Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm), the Summerspring sisters, Emily (Dakota Johnson) and Rose (Cailee Spaeny), the sole staff member on site, manager Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman) and the mysterious Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth) – all converge on the hotel one fateful night for one last shot at redemption before everything goes wrong… I can’t do it. I can’t kill no more people. Doesn’t your heart go out to actors nowadays? Either they starve themselves on chicken breasts and broccoli to appear as ludicrous superheroes looking deranged from hanger and bodybuilding steroids on the subsequent publicity tour, or they wind up in something like this (or in Hemsworth’s case, both), a kind of Tarantinoesque closed-room Agatha Christie mystery trading on well-worn tropes. It’s really not right, is it? Seven strangers. Seven secrets. All roads lead here. However this pastiche is cleverly staged (with an actual state border running through the building), impeccably designed (by Martin Whist) and shot (by Seamus McGarvey) and well performed outside that narrow generic style that such material demands.  It’s overlong but florid and rather fruity with nods to Hitchcock and Lynch and the big reveal is worth waiting for. Written, produced and directed by Drew Goddard. Well, it looks like the Lord hasn’t forsaken you yet