Donnie Darko (2001)

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This came out right after 9/11 which was its misfortune. It has a rather extraordinary plane crash and it wasn’t that that made me relate to it entirely but it was a factor – one of my most vivid and disturbing dreams concerned a crash in my neighbourhood but that was in the aftermath of the Avianca crash on Long Island in 1990 and I remember afterwards reading in a column that nobody should eat bluefish for rather obvious reasons…. I digress. This begins with one of two songs by two of my favourite bands because there are two versions of the edit. So you see Jake Gyllenhaal cycling through his suburban neighbourhood either to Echo and the Bunnymen’s Killing Moon or INXS’s Never Tear Us Apart:  both forever songs, in my book. He’s a teen who’s off his meds and talks to Frank, a man dressed as a  giant rabbit in the bathroom mirror. Problem is, the rabbit can control him and as he searches for the meaning of life and his big sister (Maggie Gyllenhaal) bugs him and his little sister pursues her dancing ambition and everyone quarrels about voting for Michael Dukakis (because it’s 1988), he starts tampering with the water main flooding his school, a plane crashes into their house and he resents the motivational speaker (Patrick Swayze) who enters the students’ lives while the inspiring Graham Greene story The Destructors is being censored by the PTA.  He burns down the man’s house and the police find a stash of kiddie porn and arrest him. Donnie’s interest in time travel leads him to the former science teacher (Patience Cleveland) aka Grandma Death but his friendship with her leads the school bullies to follow him and she is run down – by Frank. Donnie shoots him.  When he returns to his house a vortex is forming and a plane is overhead and things go into reverse … and Donnie is in bed, just as he was 28 days earlier, when the story starts … Extraordinary, complex, nostalgic, blackly funny and startlingly true to teenage behaviour and perception and life in the burbs, I know there are websites dedicated to explaining this but I don’t care about that. Just watch it. And wonder how Richard Kelly could possibly make anything this good again. Stunning.

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The Big Lebowski (1998)

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Nobody fucks with the Jesus. The Dude abides. Where to start with one of the most cherished films there has ever been? Not in the beginning. I may have almost had a coronary from laughing the first time I saw this at a festival screening prior to its release, but a lot of critics just did not get it. It’s the Coen Brothers in excelsis, a broad Chandler adaptation and tribute to Los Angeles,  a hymn to male friendship and the Tao of easy living with some extraordinarily surreal fantasy and dream sequences – not to mention some deadly bowling. Jeff Bridges is Jeffrey ‘Dude’ Lebowski, a guy so laid back he’s horizontal but he gets a little antsy when some thieves mistake him for The Big Lebowski and piss on his rug (it really tied the room together). Best friend Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) is his bowling buddy, an uptight Nam vet with adoptive-Jewish issues in this hilarious offside take on director John Milius. Steve Buscemi is their sweet-natured friend Donny and John Turturro is the unforgettable sports foe, a hispanic gangsta paedo in a hairnet, Jesus Quintana. After the rug issue is handled, Dude is hired by his namesake (David Huddleston) a wheelchair-bound multimillionaire philanthropist, to exchange a ransom when his young trophy wife Bunny (Tara Reid) is kidnapped. Naturally Dude screws it up. There’s a band of nihilists led by Peter Stormare, some porn producers (Bunny makes flesh flicks), Lebowski’s randy artist daughter (Julianne Moore) and a private eye following everyone. And there’s Sam Elliott, narrating this tale of tumbleweed and laziness.  Everyone has their signature song in one of the great movie soundtracks and Dude has not only Creedence but White Russians to really mellow his day. Just like The Big Sleep, the plot really doesn’t matter a fig. This is inspired lunacy and I love it SO much.

Welcome to New York (2014)

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Until a half dozen years ago one didn’t necessarily equate the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank with molestation, self-pleasuring and rape – other than financial. With the arrest of French presidential hopeful Dominique Strauss-Kahn, we learned that it’s a merry-go-round of whores, call girls, strippers, hookers, prostitution rings, orgies and sex parties. The first thirty minutes of this Abel Ferrara epic concern themselves precisely with this subject matter,  in which an important person going by the name Devereaux, a DSK-alike (Gerard Depardieu, who clarifies he hates all politicians and that one in particular in the opening ‘meta’ EPK) satisfies himself with a plenitude of whores in a succession of scenes. It’s a grotesque sight not merely because Devereaux is enormous and growls when aroused. It’s pure porn. This is prefaced by a meeting prior to his departure for the US where he’s warned that the secret service there are going to be monitoring him because of rumours (they’re not specified). The messenger is immediately offered sexual favours by one of Devereaux’s whores. After hiring two ladies of the night a housekeeper walks in on him naked, he grabs her and jerks off on her. Admittedly I had to pause at this point and come up for air because the stench off this story was overwhelming. He meets his adult daughter and embarrasses her in front of her boyfriend by asking if she enjoys sex with him. The police then grab him before his aeroplane leaves the ground at JFK. He is arrested and humiliated, stripped naked and imprisoned in a police cell when he’s finally allowed his one phonecall and it’s to his powerbroker wife Jacqueline Bisset as Simone, a version of Anne Sinclair. Bisset plays her with elegance, hauteur and the infinite understanding of a woman who is very much aware that she is married to an insatiable, repulsive sex fiend.They have a big scene about an hour in, when he’s permitted to stay in a posh modern duplex under house arrest. She begs him not to touch her – even now she’s susceptible to his touch. His adult daughter by a previous wife calls Simone humorless. He addresses the camera when they discuss his detractors and snarls,’They can go f**k themselves!’ After a therapy session enforced by law/his wife in which he admits he cannot be saved nor does he wish it, we enter real Ferrara territory, exploring the mindset of this unrepentant unChristian sinner:  Devereaux is back at the house, looking out at NYC. His reflection is fragmented in such a way as to actually look like the real DSK. His voiceover narration explains his contempt for ‘the herd’. We flash back to his previous sexual encounters including his assault of a young journalist whose mother he knows – he insinuates she wasn’t as much of a problem when it came to sex. His sense of entitlement is supreme, his sense of his power over women unvarnished, his sense of shame utterly non-existent. The charges are dropped, we don’t know why, he presumes it’s his wife’s chequebook. Can anyone comprehend the power of a billionaire? (In reality the immigrant hotel worker was accused of lying because her statement was mis-translated.) And we end with him looking straight to camera after his housemaid says he’s a nice person. If you can get through the vile first half an hour … you get to know why the world is the way it is and why we know next to nothing about the women he abused. But you probably know that already and since this barely got released, you probably don’t need to have this awfulness reinforced. This is a horrible film about a horrible person and the horrible people around him .

Can You Keep It Up for a Week? (1974)

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In my ongoing search to see some of the worst films ever made, my viewing turns once again to that dread beast, the British Sex Comedy. This mini-genre, which feasts off the audience’s total embarrassment, is well served here in its gruesome attention to genitalia and stupidity. Jill Damas will only marry boyfriend Jeremy Bulloch if he can hold down a job for seven days. This is not a Buster Keaton film. He starts by pumping petrol and you can figure out the double entendres, pratfalls and shot choices. He bungles everything, everywhere.Every other job necessarily involves sexual relations with females succumbing to his hapless charms. Richard O’Sullivan cameos as a camp photographer, Valerie Leon as a predatory femme who hits on Jill -but this makes it sound respectable. It culminates in an orgy around a swimming pool. The producers thank the Holiday Inn chain for using their facilities at Heathrow and Swiss Cottage. Presumably they’ve cleaned the rooms by now. This allegedly had a screenplay by someone called Robin Gough (his sole outing, whew) and was directed by Jim Atkinson (his only directorial job). Crossroads‘ creator Hazel Adair wrote the lyrics to the theme song. Even I have to say:  I have now seen enough. Ghastly.

The Iceman (2012)

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One critic called this Zodiac meets Goodfellas. And therein lieth the problem. It’s the true story of a mob hitman, Richard Kuklinski, who supposedly murdered around 100 people between 1965 and 1986. Michael Shannon marries Winona Ryder who thinks he dubs Disney cartoons. Actually he puts together pornos for the Mafia. When his boss (Ray Liotta) shuts down the place he tests him by giving him his gun to shoot a homeless man. He has form so it’s not a problem. And he keeps on killing. And doublecrosses his boss with another contract killer (Chris Evans) who operates a Mr Whippy van. And the killings just go on and on. Until he’s caught. And we don’t care. Shannon’s is an unsympathetic character and the (co-)writing by director Ariel Vromen just doesn’t move us a whit, even with the backstory of the rough upbringing and the brother inside for raping and murdering a 12 year old girl. Hear this? It’s the sound of the smallest violin in the world.

Cool It Carol! (1970)

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Janet Lynn is Carol Thatcher (!), the smalltown girl who’s bored and wants to go to London for fun and a modelling career. She convinces Robin Askwith playing Joe the trainee butcher to join her and deflowers him on the train journey. They quickly run out of money and she thinks it’d be a lark to pose for nude photos and when they have to wait to see if they’ll sell, he pimps her out so they can eat. Lynn maintains her upbeat approach to the world of seed even when old men masturbate over the pair of them having sex for a porn film. She wants to draw the line at having sex with a sheikh but now that Joe’s managing her she has to go through that and more because there’s so much money involved … they fetch up with a lorra lorra money but they’re not happy. Lynn is quite the delight and Askwith is good as the naif. From the pen of Murray Smith, this Pete Walker outing is a typically cautionary tale about prostitution – but it doesn’t stop him shooting all those couplings and breasts, eh? The Seventies. Another time, when you really did find stories in the News of the World and just change the names. Allegedly.

Blind (2014)

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Norwegian writer/director Eskil Vogt has made a startling debut feature. Ingrid has suddenly lost her eyesight and retreats to her apartment where she believes her husband spies on her. She takes solace in her fantasies and integrates her own experiences with those of neighbours and imaginary characters along with some pornographic episodes which eventually leads to our discovery that she is dealing with another natural human phenomenon … and all the storylines are tied up to align with it. Clever but also somewhat shocking –  the apartment setting, the paradoxical voyeurism, the attempt to synchronise remembered images with reality of clumsy living, the storytelling which has resolution in a satisfying and surprising fashion combine to impressive effect.

The Nice Guys (2016)

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Oh boy. Finally a new release that I can TOTALLY love. Where to start? Maybe with writer and director Shane Black, adored by buddy movie fanboys everywhere, last seen helming the Christmas event movie (released in summer…) that was Iron Man 3, replete with brilliantly written roles for children, something we really see here in excelsis. Previously he made the other Brett Halliday-inspired neo-noir, the eccentric, puzzling, self-conscious and occasionally laugh out loud Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, with Robert Downey when he was on his uppers, helping him get his rep back – and isn’t Downey the most extravagantly talented actor of the past 25 years? We’re back in Halliday territory again with a noirish Seventies LA-set smoggy private eye fest with nods to everything from Chinatown to Boogie Nights, hilarious violent set-pieces, crazy dialogue, outrageous jokes, amazingly choreographed action and a brilliantly funny performance by Ryan Gosling, channeling everyone from Lou Costello to Buster Keaton. He’s the hard-up PI Holland March, hired to find Lois Smith’s niece, porn star, Misty Mountains, whom we’ve seen die in a spectacular car crash in the film’s first few minutes. He crosses paths with Jackson Healy (a pleasantly plump Russell Crowe) who’s been hired by a young woman Amelia (Margaret Qualley) NOT to be found and who soon mysteriously disappears. He sustains horrible injuries which make him go around LA trying to avoid being hurt and one of the big running jokes is how hard he is to kill – he literally falls on things you will not believe: he’s a dumbass who comes to believe in his own invincibility and ultimately, you have to admit he might have reason. But he’s a witless widower whose lack of a sense of smell caused his wife’s death. The men realise that these women’s lives have crossed in the porn world, which is when our mismatched protagonists decide to pool resources, with March’s supersmart kid Holly (Angourie Rice) watching them aghast from the sidelines as they are constantly on the verge of screwing up everything. Kim Basinger shows up (her first re-teaming with Crowe since LA Confidential) in a small but pivotal and appositely corrupt role connected with the Department of Justice and the motor industry. Meanwhile Healy has to avoid being killed by psychopathic hitman John Boy – and we’re not talking about The Waltons, though everyone here does – played by ridiculously perfect gay icon Matt Bomer. The entire sociology of LA seems to be critiqued along with American industry at the same time as the city is being held up as an ornament of wonder while the mysteries of masculine pathology are examined, trashed and given a right kick in the you know whats. What an astonishing part little Angourie Rice plays – Black may be the best writer of children roles, which is an astonishing claim perhaps but watch this and you’ll see what I mean. It’s a lateral reference to Tatum O’Neal in Paper Moon, one of the great films of the era. If you don’t love it you’re probably hidebound by PC-ness and a lack of humour. At last – this is one of the few films out there that isn’t dependent on selling you comics or live-action figures against a background of a 9/11 simulacrum minus the Arabs. Gosling is just great in a comic role and Crowe is absolutely on it as the enforcer who only ever felt good inflicting violence. The management of tone given the plethora of ingredients is astonishing. We end, unsurprisingly, at Black’s favourite time of year – really, has anyone thought of doing a study of Shane Black’s Christmas stories? The stunt choreographer alone should get an Academy Award and Oscar-winning Valli O’Reilly did the makeup. Black even got Warners to let him use their old Saul Bass-designed ‘W’ logo – so we know we’re in safe hands. And the soundtrack is, you know, to die for. Way to go young porno lady!!!! Film of the year!

On the Game (1974)

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Stanley Long (Britain’s answer to Russ Meyers) came up with the wheeze of the Serious Documentary to stage period vignettes of sexcapades in the guise of a history of prostitution. Anything to try to avoid the dread scissors of the BBFC. You might recognise some TV faces – Peter Duncan (from Blue Peter) as a gay blade and Carmen Silvera (‘Allo ‘Allo) as a dominatrix. Narrated by Charles Gray. Have a cup of tea instead.

Don’t Answer the Phone! (1980)

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The old saw regarding the difference between the sexes goes, Men are afraid that women are going to laugh at them, Women are afraid that men are going to kill them. So it goes here, in this ghastly exploitationer from Crown (who else). Written and produced by Michael D. Castle and Robert Hammer, who directed. A Nam vet stalks the streets of LA tracking and raping and murdering women. He calls a radio shrink to inform her of his ill-health and kills a victim on air. His porn photos lead police to his door. This is sick and ghastly and impugns vets. It’s why people watch Downton Abbey. Frasier this ain’t.