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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Rocketman (2019)

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You have to kill the person you were meant to be in order to become the person you want to be. A troubled Elton John (Taron Egerton) flounces offstage in full costume to attend an Alcoholics’ Anonymous meeting in 1990 to finally tackle his prodigious appetite for drink, drugs, sex, food and shopping. We revisit his life in flashbacks to his lonely childhood in post-war suburban Middlesex as Reggie Dwight with a desperately mismatched mother Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard) and father Stanley (Steven Mackintosh) and a grandmother Ivy (Gemma Jones) who encourages the young prodigy. He plays with a band called Bluesology supporting visiting US acts and gets picked up by A&R man Ray Williams (Charlie Rowe) to write for producer Dick James (Stephen Graham) and is teamed with teenage lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) whose words spark an astonishing array of songs in the young composer. They are sent to premiere the renamed ‘Elton John’ to perform at the Troubadour club in Los Angeles where he literally takes off overnight but the pressures of performing and an encounter with personal manager John Reid (Richard Madden) leads to a life of unhappiness and addiction … Do you know how disappointing it is to be your mother? The Elton John biopic that has been in the work for decades finally hits the ground running trailing tantrums, tiaras and all the sequinned flamboyance that the man has on his rider. It’s more than a jukebox musical – it’s a freewheeling fantasy that uses some of the best songs John and Taupin have written to explore the astronomical fame that exploded when they went to the US as soon as they created Your Song. Lee Hall’s script is sometimes too on the nose (if you show you don’t also tell, natch) but for the most part director Dexter Fletcher’s approach is wildly inventive, epic and oddly appropriate even when the time-travelling back and forth is anachronistic in terms of the songs themselves so it might confuse those expecting a more logical biography. It bucks convention and Fletcher has clearly watched the oeuvre of Ken Russell (appropriately enough considering John’s role in Tommy, referenced here), understanding fundamentally the possibilities of narrative playfulness, the sung-through sub-genre and of course the necessities of the backstage form. As brilliantly evoked as the concerts are, the high points take place in a livingroom in Pinner. The monstrousness of his parents is to the fore even if we don’t get into the horrors of his mother hiring an Elton John tribute act to appear at her 90th birthday party since the 1990 addiction therapy is as far as it goes chronologically.  The children who play the young Reggie should get a big shoutout because they are quite extraordinary – Matthew Illesley and especially Kit Connor – and there is a nice touch for Irish viewers with The Stripes (the band that got away from John’s record company and split last year, sob) appearing as members of Bluesology, the group he had before his breakthrough. Egerton lacks the nuance for tragedy but he has some fantastic moments principally as the beloved stage performer:  perhaps that’s enough – those lows are sequenced well in montages and anything resembling the sordid reality might be too tough for this high wire act to bear. Dramatically though it’s the relationships John has with Taupin and his grandmother that make the emotions land. Tate Donovan revels in his outrageousness as Doug Weston, the proprietor of LA’s Troubadour;  while Madden is a horror as the man who took John to the cleaners and stole his heart. Quite the morality tale in terms of his excesses (we never get to see him actually enjoy all those drugs) but the sheer wit and imagination on display is peculiarly apt when it comes to amplifying the content of all those great songs. A delightful evening at the cinema that simply bursts with all the zest a musical can muster and much better than Fletcher’s job on Bohemian Rhapsody but somehow it’s a tad less enjoyable. Go figure. Oh, just write the fucking songs, Bernie. Let me handle the rest!

Scandalous Me: The Jacqueline Susann Story (1998) (TVM)

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I want to be loved. 1940s New York City: Jacqueline Susann (Michele Lee) is a second-string theatre actress and well-known party girl who turns to journalism following her marriage to press agent turned producer Irving Mansfield (Peter Riegert). Though constantly surrounded by the glitterati of the theatre and social scene she doesn’t achieve celebrity status herself and has to endure the tragedy of a brain-damaged son who has to be institutionalised. Then when she’s 47,  she publishes the raunchy bestselling novel Valley of the Dolls. Outwardly committed to publicising her work and involved in regular cross-country media campaigns, she privately battles cancer and constantly questions her troubled relationship with her society portraitist father Robert (Kenneth Welsh) who never got around to finishing her picture …  Everything I do is for you. Everything I make is for you. Treading much straighter territory than Isn’t She Great (the Bette Midler version) this adaptation by Michele Gallery of Barbara Seaman’s biography Lovely Me ironically strays indirectly and presumably unintentionally into camp now and then, and it doesn’t really do justice to the genius of its subject but Lee is excellent as this spiky confrontational woman who did things her own way. For anyone interested in the backstage antics of NYC’s post-war theatre scene with big personalities like Ethel Merman (Gloria Slade), the evolution of publishing and the making of the notorious film of Susann’s most famous novel with Barbara Parkins (Annie Laurie Williams), Patty Duke (Melanie Peterson) and the lovely Sharon Tate (Leila Johnson), there are residual attractions, but the drivers of this biopic are the private tragedies of the woman who revolutionised modern publishing by establishing her own critic-proof brand of sex and sass. Directed by Bruce McDonald. You don’t cook, you don’t clean, you never stay in. My life is never going to be dull

Cold War (2018)

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Time doesn’t matter when you’re in love.  In post-war Poland conductor and musicologist Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Irena (Agata Kulesza) are holding auditions for a state-sponsored folk music ensemble. Wiktor’s attention is immediately captured by Zula (Joanna Kulig), an ambitious and captivating young woman who is faking a peasant identity and is on probation after attacking her abusive father when he attempted to rape her. They commence a sexual relationship but Wiktor doesn’t want to incorporate more Stalinist propaganda in their productions and wants to escape to the West. Zula doesn’t join him when he escapes in Berlin but a couple of years later he finds her on tour in Yugoslavia where he is quickly removed back to his current base in Paris. Then Zula shows up and leaves her marriage and becomes a recording artist with his help. She can’t stand what he has become and flees to Poland the night her album is launched and Wiktor makes a tremendous sacrifice just to see her again … As far as we’re concerned you don’t exist. It starts with people singing folk songs, performed plaintively and sonorously against a mysterious monochrome backdrop which is rural Poland yet some images take a while to reveal themselves from abstraction. That’s all of a piece with the lives of these somewhat disembodied, disenfranchised individuals whose better existence is entwined with each other yet whose life together is messy, filled with bust-ups, disagreements, partings, border crossings, cultural preservation, propaganda and politics. Their identity – colonised, travelling, in denial – presents a kind of melancholy frankly incomprehensible to people who think they should be glad to be out of the hellhole of the Eastern Bloc.  Neither protagonist is especially likable and the underage relationship is at first shocking, even if she is sexually precocious. The gleaming black and white photography seems bleak at first but paradoxically heightens the romance because this is a film that rejoices in the possibilities of cities and how people can express themselves in one international language – music. Watching Zula finally let loose in the West to Rock Around the Clock is joyous, even if it further fractures her relationship. The architecture isn’t stressed but the common culture it expresses looms over the narrative – building styles, churches, bars, clubs, concert halls, the locations where this couple can find themselves and each other, over and over again. It’s sombre but passionate. Finally they wind up at a literal crossroads, decision made. Writer/director Pawel Pawlikowski traverses these ideas like a high-wire artist, never stooping to the obvious even if some of the melodramatic curves seem inevitable. When Zula tosses her eponymous record in a fountain and then takes off back to Poland it seems unlikely they can ever meet again. But Viktor returns to his home country only to be imprisoned? Well. If it wasn’t true, would you believe it? Yet that is what Pawlikowski’s own background looks like – complex, difficult, liminal, like all stories about affiliations and borders and political ideologies and exile. It’s about his parents. And it’s true. And it took years and years for them to get together and their relationship covers a continent of musical styles and idioms. Remarkable. Let’s go to the other side.

In The Cut (2003)

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I wanna get married once… just for my mom. Frannie Avery (Meg Ryan), a middle-class lecturer in New York City, witnesses a sexual incident that could have been the prelude to a murder by a killer roaming the city. Detective Giovanni Malloy (Mark Ruffalo) arrives to interview her following the murder of a young woman in her neighbourhood which he’s investigating with his partner Ritchie Rodriguez (Nick Damici) but their relationship soon moves from personal to passionate.  Soon she comes to suspect that he is the serial killer he claims to be hunting down so who can she really trust? …  You know what your problem is? You’re fucking exhausting. Fuck this, you know, I was doing just fine before I met you, just fine. Susanna Moore’s novel was a new take on the subject matter of that controversial exercise in female masochism Looking for Mr Goodbar and Nicole Kidman spent five years shepherding the adaptation by Moore and director Jane Campion (with co-writer Stavros Kazantzidis) only to bail on the lead role when her marriage to Tom Cruise ended abruptly. Thus it was that America’s romcom sweetheart Ryan stepped into the dark heart of this voyeuristic thriller in a performance that seemed to frighten critics even after her impressive turn in the earlier Courage Under Fire. This is a formally beautiful, graphic and stunningly shot (by Dion Beebe) analysis of female sexual desire and as such twists the usual misogynistic genre tropes even as the body count mounts. Some of Ruffalo’s scenes may grate but Jennifer Jason Leigh has a fantastic role as Ryan’s tragic, romantically obsessed sister and Kevin Bacon has a terrific (unbilled) part as a man with whom Ryan has had relations and he is now stalking her. Ryan is superb, not just technically, but emotionally, and this is intense on every level, an intelligent slasher film with things to say about what women really want and how dangerous that can prove. The final sequence, when she contemplates the scene of her intended death, is outstanding, a masterpiece of empathy. I want to do with you what spring does with the cherry trees

The Victors (1963)

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The whole world is full of love. A group of American soldiers manages to survive over the course of World War II, from the Battle of Britain, moving up through Sicily and France and Germany to the fall of the Third Reich and a station in occupied Berlin in the war’s aftermath. Along the way, a number of unfortunate incidents occur:  white soldiers violently abuse fellow black soldiers, a deserter is executed on New Year’s Eve and a sergeant takes advantage of a shell-shocked French woman. War is hell for the winners and the losers in this episodic meditation on the horrors that exist on and off the field of battle… Have a good time tonight? Find someone to rape? Irony is writ large in this film – starting with the title. These guys victors? God help us all. What they do to a little dog following Peter Fonda as he leaves camp doesn’t bear a second viewing. They are racist, vicious, narcissistic thugs. But hey, they’re ours! That’s really the point of this anti-war anti-blockbuster from auteur Carl Foreman, the formerly blacklisted screenwriter who gave us the joyous Guns of Navarone. So we see Vince Edwards make nice with young Italian mother Rosanna Schiaffino, Eli Wallach generously gives widowed Jeanne Moreau a break from the bombs in exchange for food, George Hamilton falls for the duplicitous musician Romy Schneider and George Peppard has an unpleasant encounter with Melina Mercouri. There is a bitter conclusion in the post-war experience as drunken Russian soldier Albert Finney in a very showy role exercises the ultimate droit de seigneur of the fatal variety. Interspersed with newsreels and taking us through the entire WW2 as a series of personal vignettes, we are oddly removed from any kind of empathy because these really are not nice guys. We get it:  nobody’s a winner. The snow field execution while Sinatra croons Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas is duly horrifying. Adapted by Foreman from the novel The Human Kind by Alexander Baron who himself served in Sicily, Normandy and Belgium through D-Day.  Directed by Carl Foreman and shot by the great Christopher Challis.  I don’t think I can ever be frightened again

 

Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

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I’d hate to take a bite out of you. You’re a cookie full of arsenic.  New York City newspaper journalist J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) has a considerable influence on public opinion with his Broadway column, but one thing that he can’t control is his younger sister, Susan (Susan Harrison), who is in a relationship with aspiring jazz guitarist Steve Dallas (Marty Milner). Hunsecker strongly disproves of the romance and recruits publicist Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) to find a way to split the couple, no matter how ruthless the method.  Falco comes up with a scheme to convince another columnist who is Hunsecker’s bitter rival to run the smear item suggesting Steve is a commie and a junkie, so that Susan won’t suspect it comes from her brother’s camp but it affects her terribly and the men compete for her affections… I love this dirty town An astonishing portrait of venality and viciousness, Lancaster (who produced) and Curtis are simply unforgettable. Major stars at the time, they were steeped in the character psychology of to-the-death rivalry in a story widely assumed to be inspired by Walter Winchell, the feared real-life columnist.  Harrison is memorable as the young woman whose brother has an almost incestuous obsession with her but it’s the face off between the male villains that makes this one of the most rivetting studies of cruelty ever put on film.  They are the yin to the other’s yang, the flip side of the same bad penny. The best of everything is good enough for me. Those mean streets of Manhattan are photographed by James Wong Howe and they are slick with rain and glistening with fear. Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odets wrote the screenplay from a story by Lehman (himself a press agent in another life) and Alexander Mackendrick was making his American directing debut after holding the fort at Britain’s Ealing Studios for many years. It’s a film that looks and sounds great (courtesy of a marvellous score by Elmer Bernstein incorporating the work of the Chico Hamilton Quintet), with that wonderful quality – the ring of truth. You’re dead son. Get yourself buried

Lured (1947)

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Would it be against Anglo-American tradition to tell a girl when the next audition is?Sandra Carpenter (Lucille Ball) is a London-based dancer who is distraught to learn that her friend Lucy Barnard (Tanis Chandler) from the nightclub where she’s working has disappeared. She’s approached by Harley Temple (Charles Coburn), a Scotland Yard investigator who believes her friend has been murdered by a serial killer who uses personal ads to find his victims. The lure is poetry along the lines of Charles Baudelaire. Temple hatches a plan to catch the killer using Sandra as bait, and Sandra agrees to help. But complications arise when the mystery appears to be solved and Sandra becomes engaged to a nightclub owner and man about town Robert Fleming (George Sanders) with whom she’s already become acquainted and who shares his home with his business and legal partner Julian Wilde (Sir Cedric Harwicke) …  I’m not interested in references as much as character/I can see that for myself. Director Douglas Sirk commands this gamy mystery with verve, making a total entertainment from Leo Rosten’s screenplay, peopled with performers right in their characterful element delivering edgy lines with great wit. From the opening titles – a torch shining on the names – the mystery is driven with pace and style with running jokes (including a crossword filled in by H.R. Barrett, played by George Zucco) and enormous style.  Boris Karloff has a great supporting role as a formerly successful fashion designer living in a fantasy world while Sanders is suave as you like and Ball is … ballsy! Annette Warren, who dubs blonde club singer Ethelreda Leopold here, would also provides Ball’s singing voice in Fancy Pants and Sorrowful Jones. Gorgeously shot by Billy Daniels, this is a remake of a 1939 French film (Pieges) directed by Robert Siodmak. She’s won her spurs, she deserves to be happy

120 BPM (2017)

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Les membres du groupe de sensibilisation ACT UP Paris demandent au gouvernement et aux sociétés pharmaceutiques de prendre des mesures pour lutter contre l’épidémie de sida au début des années 90. Nathan (Arnaud Valois), nouveau venu dans le groupe, voit son monde bouleversé par Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), militant radical et cofondateur de ACT UP, qui jette ses dernières forces dans la lutte alors qu’il fait face à Le diagnostic de ‘poz’ ayant été infecté par son professeur de maths marié quand il était au lycée lors de sa première rencontre sexuelle … À première vue, ce n’est pas une prémisse attrayante pour un film. Mais ce qui suit est un travail passionnant, impliquant un travail mêlant intimité et conscience sexuelle et action politique, interprété avec un réalisme de type naturalisme et documentaire qui dépeint avec vérité les problèmes de la participation d’activistes et la question de Big Pharma, contrastant tragédies personnelles et action Dans la rue, la poussière disco se mue en images du virus du SIDA dans le sang, réalisme magique rencontrant une honnêteté sans faille. Les réunions du groupe sont entrecoupées de marches, de visites non sollicitées à Melton Pharm, dont les produits sont toxiques et causent la mort, et de danses dans les clubs. Sean et Nathan partagent leurs histoires alors qu’ils s’impliquent dans l’amour et que leurs amis meurent. Le déclin de Nathan est dépeint avec sympathie et la présence sur son corps suscite une révérence et une humanité qui ont rarement été capturées au cinéma: littéralement, il s’agit du corps politique. Passionnant, enthousiasmant, émouvant, c’est une œuvre profonde du cinéma politique et de la réalisation de films de bravoure. Brillamment réalisé par Robin Campillo qui l’a co-écrit avec Philippe Mangeot. La photo aérienne de Paris la nuit divisée par une rivière qui coule du sang (teintée en rouge pour la Journée internationale du sida) n’est pas oubliée. Essentiel.

 

Berlin Express (1948)

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That’s right – the dove of peace was a pigeon. A dead pigeon. In Allied-occupied post-war Germany a group of passengers of various nationalities travels by train from France to Berlin. One of them, Dr. Bernhardt (Paul Lukas), is an influential peacemaker who wants to mend the war-torn continent. Nazi conspirators aboard the vehicle are determined to keep Bernhardt quiet – they set off an explosion on the train but it kills a man who turns out to have been Bernhardt’s decoy. Other passengers – Bernhardt’s assistant Lucienne (Merle Oberon), American agricultural expert Robert J. Lindley (Robert Ryan), Frenchman Perrot (Charles Korvin) and British teacher James Sterling (Robert Coote) seek the doctor for an explanation, but deception is all around and danger awaits Bernhardt at the next station when the train stops … I do sleight of hand. We’re supposed to make 1,500 calories look like an eight-course meal – and prevent things like plague and starvation. Curt Siodmak’s original story might have allegorical qualities but Harold Medford’s screenplay is an efficient genre work, a tense thriller with aspects of film noir and the procedural:  The German Vanishes, perhaps. Aside from the real-life echoes and the international cast, this is fascinating as a production shot on location in Europe right after the war, with all the spare psychology that Jacques Tourneur can bring to this atmospheric film, sorting out the wheat from the chaff in a briskly paced search through bomb-damaged Frankfurt.  The sharp dialogue really suits Ryan, who gives an excellent performance. It’s nice too to see Merle Oberon in a contemporary film which was shot documentary-style by her husband, Lucien Ballard:  producer Bert Granet spent 6 weeks in Germany in 1946 shooting 16mm film for reference. Friedrich Hollaender’s score is very effective for a story about the ongoing Nazi threat to peace in the aftermath of the war and the film is notable for not translating French and German dialogue, adding to the film’s frisson of danger in a landscape filled with the rubble of WW2 as the trans-Europe express speeds to Berlin. Due to currency fluctuations the interiors intended for France had to be shot in Culver City. We don’t have any more German enemies, do we?/  No authorised ones, anyway