The Tenant (1976)

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Aka Le locataire. If you cut off my head, what would I say… Me and my head, or me and my body? What right has my head to call itself me? Shy bureaucrat Trelkovsky (Roman Polanski) is a Polish-born French citizen who moves into an apartment whose previous female tenant an Egyptologist called Simone Choule threw herself out a window and is dying in hospital, never to return. As his neighbours view him suspiciously, he becomes obsessed with the idea of the beautiful young woman and believes that her friend Stella (Isabelle Adjani) is planning to kill him … These days, relationships with neighbors can be… quite complicated. You know, little things that get blown up out of all proportion? You know what I mean? We know how claustrophobic apartments can be from Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby. This apartment is in Paris and it is the centre of the neighbours’ gossip and pass-remarkery, those objects of fear for someone who doesn’t wish to be found out, Gérard Brach and Polanski’s adaptation of Roland Topor’s novel Le Locataire Chimérique, turning a suggestive thriller into a paranoid fantasy with a sort of macabre chalky undertaste. Trelkovsky’s introduction to the apartment and view of the lavatory opposite is brilliant and the meet-cute with Stella over the gaping Munchian maw of a moaning mummified Simone is unforgettable. It may not be as beautiful as his other apartment movies but Polanski’s intent is quite clear with the regular reminders of toilet functions and the running gag about cigarettes.The casting is superb: Melvyn Douglas is great as Monsieur Zy, Lila Kedrova as Madame Gaderian with her crippled daughter are spooky while Shelley Winters excels as the concierge. On the one hand, it’s a dance of death bristling with atmosphere and Polanski is its fulcrum, revealing Trevolsky’s gender slippage as surely as he sheds his masculine outerwear while simultaneously descending into the brutal, funny depths of psychological disintegration.  On the other, it’s a perfect film about how lonely it can be a foreigner in the big city and how easy it is to lose oneself while others are watching you. For total trivia fans, the continuity here is done by Sylvette Baudrot who did that job for that other master of apartment movies Alfred Hitchcock on To Catch a Thief.  It’s a wonderful, scary funny Kafkaesque nightmare portrait of Paris and the ending is awesome:  talk about an identity crisis. I am not Simone Choule! 

Annie Hall (1977)

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Boy I wish real life was like this. Neurotic NYC comic and TV gag writer Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) looks back on his relationship with insecure aspiring club singer Annie Hall (Diane Keaton) and wonders where it all went wrong. He recalls how they first met playing tennis with his actor friend Rob (Tony Roberts) who moves to LA;  his first marriage to Allison (Carol Kane); and his second to Robin (Janet Margolin);  and how when Annie moved in with him he became totally paranoid and thought everything she did spoke to infidelity. When they visit Rob in LA she meets music producer Tony Lacey (Paul Simon) at a party and on the couple’s return flight to NYC they agree they should split up and she returns to LA to be with Tony … That sex was the most fun I’ve ever had without laughing. Co-written with Marshall Brickman, this collage-like film is episodic, digressive, farcical, filled with running jokes, surreal flashbacks and pieces to camera on subjects as diverse as masturbation and being Jewish and Marshall McLuhan (who shows up in a line at the movies). Alvy’s whole problem is a premise derived from the great philosopher Groucho Marx – he can’t be with any woman who would want to be with him. In this battle of the sexes territory there are only departures and very few arrivals. It’s a breezy affair that exists on a tightrope of suspended disbelief and charming performances and Keaton’s is a delight. The supporting cast is outstanding and Jonathan Munk as the flame-haired kid Alvy constantly kissing girls in class is hilarious with adult Alvy moving through these flashbacks as though he’s in Wild Strawberries. Roberts is great as Alvy’s grasping sidekick. And Allen? Well it’s quintessential Woody and at least partly autobiographical. Hall is Keaton’s birth name while he calls himself ‘Singer’:  Freud is never too far away in a film which coasts on psychoanalytic concepts. Hey, don’t knock masturbation. It’s sex with someone I love. Elsewhere there’s Shelley Duvall, Colleen Dewhurst, Christopher Walken as Annie’s brother and for real nerds that’s Sigourney Weaver meeting Alvy at the movies in the last shot. The film’s surprisingly delicate piecemeal structure is held together by Alvy’s narration and according to editor Ralph Rosenblum was put together in post-production:  when Alvy is speaking to camera he’s making up the story that isn’t shot.  Allen is one of the best writers around though and these addresses don’t just fill gaps, they create allusions and deepen the theme. It’s a landmark Seventies film.  A relationship, I think, is like a shark. You know? It has to constantly move forward or it dies. And I think what we got on our hands is a dead shark

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?

 

Jacob’s Ladder (1990)

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This isn’t happening. After returning home from the Vietnam War, veteran Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins) struggles to maintain his sanity. Plagued by hallucinations and flashbacks, convinced he is in Hell when he travels on the subway, Singer rapidly falls apart as the world and people around him morph and twist into disturbing images. Girlfriend Jezzie (Elizabeth Peña) and ex-wife, Sarah (Patricia Kalember), try to help, but to little avail. Even Singer’s chiropractor friend Louis (Danny Aiello), fails to reach him as he appears to descend into madness… There is no out of here. You’ve been killed, don’t you remember? Bruce Joel (Ghost) Rubin’s impressionistic screenplay about life and death gets a hallucinatory treatment by director Adrian Lyne in an unforgettable psychological portrait that seems to be about PTSD but morphs into something else entirely, a metaphysical enquiry about perception. If you’re frightened of dying and you’re holding on, you’ll see devils tearing your life away. But if you’ve made your peace, then the devils are really angels freeing you from the earth. Better seen than explained, this leaves its audience in emotional distress, occupying a hellish reality where demons seem to pursue you in the subway. Robbins and the late Peña are wonderful playing out this magnificent fever dream, while Maurice Jarre’s score is a lament for the ages. See. According to this, you’re already dead

The Medusa Touch (1978)

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Talk about beating somebody’s brains out. French detective Brunel (Lino Ventura) working temporarily on assignment to Scotland Yard in London reconstructs the life of author John Morlar (Richard Burton) who is lying in hospital with severe head injuries following a brutal assault that has nearly killed him.  With the help of the man’s journals and psychiatrist Dr Zonfeld (Lee Remick) he realises that Morlar had powerful telekinetic abilities. His books make the link between evil and power and a pattern starts to emerge:  Brunel starts making uncanny connections with a series of disasters occurring in the outside world triggered initially perhaps by Morlar’s childhood brush with a terrible fire-breathing nanny (Frances Tomelty) whom he believes he willed to death …  If he believed himself involved in disasters he may have convinced someone else too. And they may have sought revenge. This oddly satisfying genre-splicing of psychological thriller/supernatural horror/disaster film/policier is aided immensely by Burton’s brilliant performance and Ventura’s charismatic presence, a real fish out of water navigating both a bizarre case and the politics of London policing. There are a number of significant alterations from the novel but the texture is enhanced by plugging into contemporary fears and layering them with cod-Freudianism to effectively channel several horror tropes and a heady dose of misanthropy. John Briley adapted Peter Van Greenaway’s source book and it was produced by the brilliant editor Anne V. Coates and shot by reliable veteran Arthur Ibbetson. Directed by Jack Gold.  I am the man with the power to create catastrophe

The Conversation (1974)

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There is no sound between human beings that I cannot record.  Surveillance expert Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is hired by the aide Martin Stett (Harrison Ford) to a client known only as The Director to tail a young couple, Mark (Frederic Forrest) and Ann (Cindy Williams). Tracking the pair through San Francisco’s Union Square, Caul and his associate Stan (John Cazale) manage to record a cryptic conversation between them but there is interference on the tape.  He falls out with Stan over his offensive use of religious words because he is Catholic. Tormented by memories of a previous case when he was hired by a government agency that ended in three murders, Caul becomes obsessed with the resulting tapes, believing the couple are in danger, constantly piecing it together, playing it on a loop until the recordings are stolen following a one-night stand with a woman he meets at a party and he is forced to hand over the photographs to the mysterious Director (Robert Duvall) …. Since when are you here to be entertained? Literally tapping into contemporary fears about privacy and surveillance this tense paranoid conspiracy thriller is in the vanguard of early 70s films feeding on political sleaze. He’d kill us if he got the chance.  Hackman is superb as the enigmatic loner, suddenly plunged into an ethical crisis and never further away from someone than when he’s standing right next to them.  He has a failed private life with an on-off romance (with Teri Garr) but his decency is incisively writ in his love of playing jazz saxophone (the instrument closest to the human voice).  His ethics finally overwhelm his professional safeguarding, his vanity triggering the fatal misunderstanding that twists the narrative’s direction because he is trapped in the words he has eavesdropped upon.  How fascinating that Francis Ford Coppola chose to write, produce and direct this after being mired in the moral murk of The Godfather. When he had to start production on the sequel to that box office smash Walter Murch took over post-production on this and the result is a bona fide Seventies classic released just a few months before the resignation of Richard Nixon, forever linking this with Watergate but also perhaps alluding to the fate of film directors at the mercy of their entourage, their audience and a narrative they cannot control. The mystery is compounded by an intriguing piano score by David Shire.  We’ll be listening to you

Unsane (2018)

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As soon as the insurance runs out you’ll be cured. Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) is a troubled woman who moves 450 miles away from home to escape a stalker. She is still triggered by interactions with men as a result of her experiences and makes an appointment to attend a counsellor at Highland Creek Behavioral Center. She unwittingly signs a release voluntarily committing herself to a 24-hour stay. She calls the police but they do nothing when they see the signed release. After physical altercations with a patient and a staff member whom she recognises as her stalker David Strine (Joshua Leonard), Dr. Hawthorne says she is being kept for seven more days  during which fellow patient Nate Hoffman (Jay Pharoah) reveals the insurance scam lying behind her incarceration and which even her mother Angela (Amy Irving) cannot do anything to change when she calls her on Nate’s smuggled cellphone …You unlocked something inside me that day, something I didn’t even realize was there. And right then, I knew that nothing in my life was ever going to be the same. In that moment, I was transformed permanently. You did that. Written by Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer.  Notable not just for being shot (and edited) pseudonymously by director Steven Soderbergh but because he did it on the iPhone Seven Plus and it sure ain’t purty. It’s a flawed but interesting genre piece, another thriller that’s actually an investigation of medical (non-)ethics (after Side Effects, and TV’s The Knick) providing further evidence that Soderbergh is happiest when making B movies, dramatising feisty female characters driven to the point of paranoia, generally hovering on the edges of commerciality and making films that verge on the experimental. The efforts to make TV star Foy a movie personality are interesting.  My job is to access and interpret data to produce analytical results. I did that job

The Favourite (2018)

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Or, Carry On Up the Queen. People are shitting in the streets. It’s what passes for political commentary. In 1708 England is at war with the French. A frail Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) occupies the throne at Hampton Court, and her close friend, Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), governs the country in her stead, the real power behind the throne, while tending to Anne’s ill health and mercurial temper. When Sarah’s down on her luck cousin Abigail (Emma Stone) arrives Sarah employs her as a servant but the young woman’s charm endears her to the Queen and she espies an opportunity to return to her aristocratic roots. A game of oneupmanship between the cousins commences, just as the Government requires the Queen’s advice on continuing the war in France led by Sarah’s husband Lord Marlborough (Mark Gatiss) and the leader of the opposition (Nicholas Hoult) tries to get secrets from the royal household out of Abigail …  You look like a badger. Let’s talk about camerawork. Low angles to be precise. Constantly. And the odd fisheye lens. And you know what? Tom Hooper isn’t misdirecting. Is there a reason then? Perhaps to detract from the hollow sound that empty laughter produces. That, and the foghorn-like score which drove me demented: you’ll think you have Tourette’s. This is overtly ‘satirical’ without however the political consciousness to raise the puerile humour into something attaining relevance. Pointless, in other words. The lauded performance by Colman is a series of tics rather than a complete characterisation;  while the one moment of authentic feeling arrives forty-five minutes into the running time and happens to involve bunny rabbits – the Queen has one for each child she lost in childbirth. That’s a lot of cute rabbits. With nary a care for consistency, a hefty use of the ‘c’ word (I don’t care) and some Lesbian antics there’s probably a case to be made for this as an extended TV sketch of the type that French and Saunders did thirty years ago. They mercifully concluded, contained by content and common sense. This just goes on and on and on to no particular end (there isn’t one, in fact). Tedious. Stone and Weisz have one note to play and do it repetitively. As does everybody else. This, ladies and gentlemen, is what now passes for an art film – sound and fury etc. Another two hours of my life have evaporated as the lessons of Monty Python go unheeded by the Greek auteur Yorgos Lanthimos and writers Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara. A dismal farce that fails as biography. That din in my head. Will it ever go away?! There’s always the rabbits. And Horatio, the Fastest Duck in the City. Let’s shoot something

And Then There Were None (1945)

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Aka Ten Little Indians. Are you quite sure that there’s no one else on the island? Eight people, all total strangers to each other, are invited to a small, isolated island off the coast of Devon by a Mr. and Mrs. Owen. Ferried over by a sailor called Narracott (Harry Thurston) they settle in at a mansion tended by two newly hired servants, Thomas (Richard Haydn) and Ethel Rogers (Queenie Leonard) but their hosts are absent. When the guests sit down to dinner, they notice ten figurines of Indians in a circle. Thomas Rogers puts on a record on the gramophone, from which a voice accuses them all of murder: General Sir John Mandrake (C. Aubrey Smith), of ordering his wife’s lover, a lieutenant, to his death; Emily Brent (Judith Anderson, of the death of her young nephew; Dr. Edward G. Armstrong (Walter Huston), of drunkenness which resulted in a patient dying; Prince Nikita Starloff (Mischa Auer) of killing a couple; Vera Claythorne  (June Duprez) of murdering her sister’s fiancé;  Judge Francis J. Quinncannon (Barry Fitzgerald) of being responsible for the hanging of an innocent man;Philip Lombard (Louis Hayward), of killing East African tribesmen; William H. Blore (Roland Young) of perjury, resulting in an innocent man’s death and the Rogers are accused of the death of their invalided employer … I slept very well, thank you. I have nothing on my conscience.  One of the great murder mysteries, this is a superb adaptation of one of Agatha Christie’s most ingeniously constructed novels by screenwriter Dudley Nichols permitting director René Clair to obtain marvellous performances from a well-chosen cast. Haydn is hilarious as the butler who takes to the drink when everyone suspects him. Enhanced by a witty score from Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, this is one of the most satisfying suspense films of its era. You cannot lock up the Devil

Suspiria (1977)

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You’re going to meet death now… the LIVING DEAD! Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) transfers to Germany to attend the Freiburg Tanzakademie, a prestigious ballet school. When she arrives, late on a stormy night, no one lets her in, and she sees Pat Hingle (Eva Axén), another student, fleeing from the school. When Pat reaches her apartment, she is murdered. The next day, Suzy arrives at her new school, where Miss Tanner (Alida Valli) introduces her to everyone, including the imperious Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett, in her final role) but has a difficult time settling in. She hears noises, and often feels ill, put on a special diet. As more people die, Suzy uncovers the terrifying secret history of the place and has to save herself from a witches’ coven …  I can see that once you make up your mind about something, nothing will change it for you. My compliments. Co-written by director Dario Argento with Daria Nicolodi (and vaguely based on the Thomas de Quincey essay Suspiria de Profundis), this is one of the classic giallos, a colourful, suspenseful exercise in paranoid conspiracy Gothic supernatural horror, with witches instead of politicians and a gutsy heroine who reigns supreme. There are several gorgeous set pieces, incredible cinematography (Luciano Tovoli) and production design (Giuseppe Bassan) and one of the all-time great scores by Goblin and Argento. And it wouldn’t be a Seventies Euro horror without Udo Kier! A delicious delirious dream of a film, every frame bearing the imprint of a master filmmaker. Crazy, sensational and utterly fabulous, this is peak Argento. Suzy, do you know anything about… witches?