Damascus Cover (2017)

 

Damascus Cover.png

When missions go bad, there’s only one rule – protect your partner.  Following the murder of his colleague in Damascus by Syrian Secret Police Chief Sarraj (Navid Negahban) Israeli agent Ari Ben-Sion aka Hans Hoffman (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) is deployed to Syria by his overseer Miki (John Hurt) to exfiltrate a spy and his family and runs into American photographer Kim (Olivia Thirlby) with whom he becomes involved before realising she is part of a much bigger plot and the real target of his mission is an entirely different individual in deep cover but hiding in plain sight … It’s a real maze. Adapted by director Daniel Zelik Berk and Samantha Newton from Howard Kaplan’s 1977 bestseller this is updated to 1989, the year of revolutions, so that the action happens in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall (although they’re not exactly celebrating Christmas here). The characterisation is undercooked and the storytelling is a little clunky – you feel that Hans/Ari should have figured out a lot quicker that something bigger is going on than his purported task. It’s the textural matters that are more interesting – the maze-like construction of a city where Jews are only permitted to leave their quarter one at a time, where streets lead you to dead ends like a rat; the depicting of the secret police under the original Assad; the post-war Nazis doing business in an Islamic haven (the role of Moslems in the Holocaust has yet to be dramatised); the issue of identity in a region where anti-semitism is writ large: when Ari enters Syria he is asked, Have you ever visited Occupied Palestine? He is already displaced in Israel after moving from Germany as a child and is suffering the bereavement any father would following the breakdown of his marriage in the wake of the death of his young son (although we don’t know how that happened, there are several shots of children at play as well as his haunting nightmares about the boy).  He doesn’t exhibit true emotion until he’s engaged with Kim who herself has issues with being distanced from her young son and who has a father whose actions for his Syrian overlords has resulted in his death.  She appears to be repaying a debt to the intelligence service, willingly or not. Berk is the former talent agent who introduced John Travolta to Quentin Tarantino for which we are all truly grateful and this has a slick look and a trim running time. It’s beautifully shot by Chloë Thomson.  Despite the welcome complexities in Ari and his mistakes, and the issue of Syria versus Israel, it doesn’t plumb the resonant depths of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – the echo casting of John Hurt in the perfunctory but dramatically significant role of Miki has a sorrowfulness because it is that great actor’s final part. It is fitting therefore that he should have the last word in the film’s signing off, Goodbye my friend

Joker (2019)

Joker.jpg

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

 

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

Times Square (1980)

Times Square.jpg

We are having our own renaissance. We don’t need anti-depressants, we need your understanding. Nicky Marotta (Robin Johnson) is a Brooklyn runaway and street musician constantly hassled by the New York City cops and when she fakes a fit they dispatch her to a psych ward for some scans because there doesn’t seem to be anything really wrong with her. Pam Pearl (Trini Alvarado) is a dreamy kid who wants to escape her overbearing politico father (Peter Coffield) the wonder boy at the mayor’s office and  she writes to a late night DJ Johnny Laguardia (Tim Curry) as Zombie Girl. She winds up in the same hospital room as Nicky and they form an uneasy friendship. Nicky is convinced that Pam’s poems could help her with her music and they run away, taking refuge in an abandoned warehouse on the Hudson and working at a strip club (with their clothes on). Nicky writes music and their story as The Sleez Sisters is covered by Johnny as they grow an army of teen girl fans … A new iconoclast has come to save us – it’s The Sleez Sisters! A Thelma and Louise for teens, this is the soundtrack of my young life – starting with Roxy Music’s Same Old Scene and featuring everything from Gary Numan’s Down in the Park to Patti Smith’s Pissing in the Street, it’s a hugely sympathetic, fascinating time capsule of the Times Square Renaissance when it was apparently safe to be a girl on the street and Hard Times, Oklahoma Crude and The Onion Field were playing in the local fleapit. There is a fairytale fantasy quality to the setting and this mismatched pair’s adventure as they tear through the city and recognise each other’s characters as they truly are – I’m brave, you’re pretty, declares Nicky. She is so on it, it’s not true. And she says what everyone feels when they’re young:  I don’t expect to live past twenty-one that’s why I’ve gotta jam it all in now. Her Jaggeresque affect is emphasised on several levels – her appearance, her cockiness, and the line, This is for Brian Jones and all the dinosaurs that disappeared as well as the blond guitarist who backs her onstage. Johnson gives a towering performance as the husky-voiced freak destined to be a frontwoman in a band; and Alvarado is immensely appealing as the rich girl who needs to break free; while Curry is definitely the sideshow, offering pithy comments as he narrates their runaway journey with all the astonishment and empathy he can muster as someone keen to up his 4AM listenership as well as feeling some adult concern for a troubled starstruck kid who’s probably off her meds. When the girls have got what they need from each other their response to the schism is radically different and it’s moving.  They are both artists seeking an outlet for their expressivity but feel the limits of their age – 16 and 13 respectively. When they break free, you feel nothing will ever stop them – they are so brave in comparison with the adults who surround them. There is a father-daughter issue in the film and that scene of Aristotelian recognition when David sees Pam in the Cleo Club could have been horrible but it works okay.  Irony is writ large in the humorous use of I Wanna Be Sedated banging from the boombox Nicky totes around the hospital prior to the girls’ escape. There are lots of incidental pleasures in this prototypical essay on the culture wars – Elizabeth Pena in the opening scene; trying to spot author Billy Mernit as one of the band The Blondells (he’s written a great book on Hollywood romcoms); figuring out that the birthdate for Alvarado’s character is the actress’s own (it’s on the bus advert). And let’s not overstate the impact of the best soundtrack of any film of the Eighties, produced by David Johansen, who duets with Johnson. The Manic Street Preachers covered her song, Damn Dog. What a talent Johnson was but the producer Robert Stigwood who apparently promised much for her did not turn up the goods and she has completely disappeared off our radar. Written by the film critic, songwriter and King of Marvin Gardens scribe Jacob Brackman from a story by the director who has done so much to popularise disc jockeys in cinema, Mr Allan Moyle: may he take a bow for being so good to his female fan club by making this because running away and living a punk rock life never seemed like a great idea until this came out with its energy and spit and fury.  What is he telling us? That the amazing music you listen to is never quite as important as the music you hear within. All together now, Spic nigger faggot bum – Your daughter is one!

Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986)

Down and Out in Beverly Hills film.jpg

He’s gonna give the dog fleas. Unlucky homeless guy Dave (Nick Nolte) decides to call it quits, and so sneaks into a stranger’s backyard in the posh enclave of Beverly Hills and tries to drown himself in the pool. However, Jerry’s plans are stopped by the pool’s owner, white-collar businessman Dave (Richard Dreyfuss), who pulls the tramp out of the water and into the pool house. But Dave’s hospitality and his status-obsessed wife Barbara (Bette Midler), don’t impress Jerry, who ignores them and first makes their crazy dog Matisse (Mike!) take his instructions and then pursues the family’s maid, Carmen (Elizabeth Peña) who is Jerry’s lover. Then Barbara succumbs to him during a massage. As he insinuates himself into the family they each think he’s solely devoted to them. Things finally come to a head at the New Year’s party when Dave is trying to impress potential Chinese buyers and his anorexic daughter Jenny (Tracy Nelson) reveals the reason she’s eating again … I went shopping for gratification. But it was like sex without a climax. Paul Mazursky’s remake of the 1932 Renoir film Boudu Saved From Drowning (itself adapted from a French play) is a sprightly screwball farce with some very funny performances in this story of a one-man home invasion who seduces all before him, starting with the dog, who has his own psychiatrist. Taking potshots at midlife crises, below-stairs relationships, race relations, wellness fads, consciousness raising and silly people who have more money than sense, it might not be the vicious satire you expect from Mazursky but it’s hilarious from start to finish with some really smart verbal transitions from scene to scene. Co-written with Leon Capetanos. I knew that bum was trouble

Fear in the Night (1972)

Fear in the Night poster.jpg

Aka Dynasty of Fear/Honeymoon of Fear. Your pretty little brand new wife.  The fragile wife Peggy Heller (Judy Geeson) of teacher Robert (Ralph Bates) is attacked in the bathroom of her boarding house by a man with a mechanical arm but nobody believes her and she is briefly institutionalised prior to his taking a job at a small prep school outside London run by Michael Carmichael (Peter Cushing) a mysterious figure whose wife Molly (Joan Collins) Peggy instantly dislikes. Soon Peggy identifies Carmichael’s arm from the earlier attack and left alone by Robert one evening takes out the shotgun to exact revenge when Michael is visiting her but for some reason he can’t be killed. When Robert returns a plot is revealed in a school that isn’t open at all  … I spilled something. The contours of this resemble another school thriller, the French classic  Les Diaboliques, which director (and writer/producer) Jimmy Sangster had already transposed into a Hammer film for Seth Holt in A Taste of Fear a decade earlier. The marital triangle contrived here with co-screenwriter Michael Syson is more straightforwardly adapted in this version, with the relentless pressure on Peggy like a time bomb waiting to go off in the audience as well in what is also an alternate take on Gaslight. The very ordinariness of the physical situation somehow makes it horribly plausible and Geeson’s torment is clarified in her impressively detailed performance. It’s a fantastic role for her but Collins doesn’t get enough to do (even as a trigger happy sculptress!) and never shares time with Cushing, her screen husband. There’s an excellent use of flashbacks and a wonderful plot twist. And there’s a shot of Cushing – when he’s shot! – that I’ll never forget. Never mind his arm, what about those spectacles … I’ll find Michael. And if he’s still alive I’ll kill him!

Since You Went Away (1944)

Since You Went Away.jpg

Jane, dear, I’m terribly proud of the way you’ve grown up. I’m sorry Pop missed it. When her husband  Tim leaves to fight in World War II, housewife Anne Hilton (Claudette Colbert) must struggle on alone to raise their two daughters, Jane (Jennifer Jones) and Bridget (Shirley Temple) in their midwestern town. With a tight budget, Anne is forced to take in two lodgers, elderly ex-soldier Col. William G. Smollett (Monty Woolley) and handsome Lt. Tony Willet (Joseph Cotten), a friend of Tim’s. However, loyal maid Fidelia (Hattie McDaniel) stays on unpaid and the makeshift household pulls together through home front hardships. Jane falls for Tony who is smitten with Anne, but when Smollett’s son Bill (Robert Walker) shows up, despite disappointing his father after failing West Point, Jane transfers her affections to him If only he could have been with me the day I went, all by myself, to the Statue of Liberty and read what it says there for the whole world to see. Do you know it? Anne Hilton, did you ever read it? Adapted by producer David O. Selznick from Margaret Buell Wilder’s eponymous novel, this is a super smooth and overlong helping of Americana from the home front, drenched in detail and emotion and amplified by the luxe shooting style of cinematographers Lee Garmes and Stanley Cortez.  It’s funny and sweet and heartwarming and touches on issues of post-combat injury with its depiction of military casualties. It’s a sweeping portrait of anxiety and unease at a troubling time when everyone is playing the same game of waiting to see if and when men will come home. Colbert does a fine job as the harried mother trying to make ends meet and dealing with the vagaries of fussy Smollett while Tony clearly wants more than friendship from her. Agnes Moorehead is superb as a catty, conscience-free neighbour. Temple is a revelation as the teenager while Jones is the romantic, wavering between crushes and finally falling for someone of her own age, with tragic consequences. Everyone is searching for a meaningful role. Directed by John Cromwell, who would later suffer under the HUAC blacklist, with uncredited work by Edward F. Cline, Tay Garnett and the ubiquitous Mr Selznick, who was also sleeping with Jones whom he later married when she and then-husband Walker divorced. Don’t you want to say good-bye?

The Arrangement (1969)

The Arrangement.jpg

What happened to you, Eddie? Must kill you to think what you might have been. Eddie Anderson born Evangelos Arness (Kirk Douglas) is a Greek-American advertising executive who drives off the LA freeway in the morning traffic and into a tunnel and ducks his head as he goes straight under a truck. He is suicidally unhappy in his work, his marriage to Florence (Deborah Kerr) and his affair with a liberated woman ad exec Gwen (Faye Dunaway) who seems to be involved with someone else. His colleagues led by Arthur (Hume Cronyn) try to figure out how to lure him back to work using a psychiatrist (Harold Gould)  to help him work through his issues while his ageing father Sam (Richard Boone) manipulates him from a distance. However a spell in a mental hospital looms when he shows up with a gunshot wound and refuses to say how it happened … I want you to sell that house. And sell that place in the desert. Sell the cars, the paintings, that Bulgarian statue in the garden. Sell the books, the records, deep freezer, everything! Look, I’m the head of the house, that’s an order: sell it!  An adman in late Sixties Los Angeles letting it all hang out and going off the rails as he comes to terms with his double life and his obscure origins. Sounds familiar? Yes, it reeks of the themes and especially the concluding season of Mad Men, that astonishing TV portrait of midcentury masculinity. It will take some brain power without benefit of prior knowledge to work out that this muddled mor(t)ality tale is the work of Elia Kazan, that unparalleled interpreter of Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and William Inge on both stage and screen.  Not only is he the director, he wrote the (supposedly quasi autobiographical) novel on which it is based so you can’t even blame someone else for confused writing. You may then prefer the electively mute Douglas post-car wreck to the one that actively engages with his alter ego – the sight of Kirk lounging atop an upright piano while his other self blithely tinkles the keys may just make you bust a gut. Michelle Pfeiffer he ain’t. Kerr has a thankless role but ironically comes out of this respectably – a concerned wife finally sick of the arrangement that lets her free loving husband do exactly as he pleases with his mistress. Dunaway smirks her way through the film with funny tinted spectacles so goodness only knows what’s going on there. Maybe she knew she was playing Barbara Loden, Kazan’s second wife, an actress whom she had understudied for the Marilyn Monroe role in Arthur Miller’s After the Fall. Unlike Stanley Donen’s Two for the Road which expertly keeps the sense of mixed up timelines clear with a dramatic and emotional logic, this is a mishmash of cod psychology, family history and Freudian sex soup which does nobody’s reputation any favours but for all that … it’s fascinating, a good story, dreadfully told. The screwing I’m getting is not worth the screwing I’m getting

Winchester (2018)

Winchester.png

Aka The 13th Hour. A house in permanent construction on the orders of a grieving woman. In 1906 the board of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company solicit the services of widowed and dissolute laudanum-addicted Dr Eric Price (Jason Clarke) to assess the mental health of Sarah Lockwood Winchester (Helen Mirren) heiress to the Winchester fortune.  She is in the middle of a neverending building project that stands seven stories tall and contains hundreds of rooms. To an outsider, it looks like a monstrous monument to her unravelling mind but for her it is an asylum for hundreds of vengeful ghosts – and the most terrifying among them have a score to settle with the Winchesters and her niece Marion’s (Sarah Snook) son Henry (Finn Scicluna-O’Prey) seems to be the vehicle for revenge… Instruments of death have a powerful connection with the afterlife. Tom Vaughan and directors the Spierig Brothers write a not very scary supernatural horror that excavates the legend of America’s most haunted house via the ghosts of the Civil War, killed by the rifle that won it for the Union. Clarke is more sympathetic than usual while the great Mirren in her widow’s weeds isn’t given much space in a narrative that has an interesting focus on what happens in life involving the afterlife and ghosts with PTSD but seems to lose the plot. It’s lavish but I wouldn’t call it home. Do you know who the most terrifying monster is? The one you invite in

Jacob’s Ladder (1990)

Jacobs Ladder.jpg

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