Anything (2017)

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You don’t want to live in Hollywood. Struggling to cope with the death of his wife and following his own suicide attempt, Mississippi widower Early Landry (John Carroll Lynch) moves to Los Angeles to be near his sister Laurette (Maura Tierney) who works in development at Sony and lives in Brentwood with her wheelchair bound husband Larry (Bradley Wayne James)  and teenage son Jack (Tanner Buchanan). A stranger in the city, Early endures the dinner party from hell when a widow (Bonnie McNeil) says she can’t stop thinking about her dead husband. His life is changed forever when he gets a place of his own in Hollywood and grows close to his transgender prostitute neighbour Freda (Matt Bomer) and experiences a different kind of love in a ramshackle building where everyone’s got their own problems … When I first got here I had a pulse. That and a desire to die. Practically an essay in kindness and intersectionality, this very contemporary mood piece has its origins in a 2007 stage play written and directed by Timothy McNeil who does the main duties here. With beautiful impressionistic handheld cinematography by James Laxton (who works a lot with Barry Jenkins) we see downtown LA as Early gets to experience it:  shopping at Ralph’s, eating at Canters, hiking in the hills, stopping at the burger stand. These interludes and montages disguise the fact that most of the action takes place in Early’s new home. His interactions with his neighbours including songwriter Brianna (Margot Bingham) and her junkie boyfriend David (Michah Hauptman) are blunted with alcohol and he finally sees in these marginal people echoes of his own life and its limitations following a happy 26 year-long marriage.  Lynch is nothing if not an unconventional romantic lead – as Brianna says, like Andy Griffith’s sadder brother.  He imbues this supposedly simple man with incredible complexity and warmth. (Let us not forget Lynch is a fine director too, having helmed Harry Dean Stanton’s last film, Lucky). The abortive attempt to introduce Freda at a dinner party with Laurette and family is grindingly difficult and ends in tears:  rather fantastically, everyone behaves just as you’d expect but the writing is so good and lacking in crude stereotypes you’d expect elsewhere. This is all about pain and lack of empathy. Bomer is superb as the beautiful prostitute who cannot believe her feelings for this tightie Southern whitey and she endures the horrors of detoxing when Early decides they’ve got to quit their respective demons.  She’s a mess of feelings and conflicts with all sorts of arresting ideas and lines and a desire to change her life, it’s just that this relationship was definitely not on her agenda. It’s a sweet romantic drama with rough corners about acceptance and making the best of what and who you’ve got. In this small scale but rewarding film we are reminded that love and friendship find a way, no matter what we do to get in the way. In spite of all your love letters and your stars you really fucking hate me

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The Arrangement (1969)

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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

The Love Witch (2016)

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Men are like children. They’re very easy to please as long as we give them what they want.  Elaine (Samantha Robinson), a beautiful young modern day witch, is determined to find a man to love her following the death of Jerry, the husband from whom she was divorced. She moves from San Francisco to Arcata California to rent from a friend and in her Gothic Victorian apartment she makes spells and potions, then picks up men and seduces them. Lecturer Wayne (Jeffrey Vincent Parise) is so overcome by their hallucinatory lovefest he dies and she buries him in the grounds of his cabin (actually a huge house). Her spells work too well, and she ends up with more hapless victims including Richard (Robert Seeley) the husband of interior decorator Trish (Laura Waddell). When she at last meets the man of her dreams, Griff (Gian Keys) the policeman sent to investigate Wayne’s death, her desperation to be loved drives her to the brink of insanity and murder... l’ll bet you like to spend time in the woods. ‘To say that this oozes style is to understate the affect of a fully-fleshed sexploitation homage from auteur Anna Billen – who not only writes and directs and edits but designs the costumes, painted the artwork, designed the production, composed the theme song and for all I know manufactured the lenses and served the crew gourmet lunches from the craft vehicle.  Clearly the woman can do just about everything. It’s fabulous – a wicca-feminist twist on a serial killing murdering witch who just wants to use sex magick for ultimate personal fulfillment but gosh darn it wouldn’t ya know it, men just never know what to do with their feelings after an amazing session in bed. Shot by M. David Mullen so that this beautiful out-of-time pastiche looks like it could have been made circa 1970 (only a cell phone conversation removes the impression), it works as a satire that goes full tilt boogie at the tropes of romantic melodrama while evoking sly commentary on what men really want from women, principally in the performing styles and an occasional internal monologue. At this rate, never the twain shall meet. If there’s anything wrong with this is it’s overlength:  at two hours it could lose 25 minutes without any fatal damage, probably from the police procedural subplot. But it’s quite incredible, a loony tunes essay on gender roles that’s drenched in sex, sensuality and humour, a pulpy delirium no matter how you look at it and the soundtrack culled from Ennio Morricone’s Italian giallo scores is to die for. Literally! According to the experts, men are very fragile. They can get crushed down if you assert yourself in any way

The Affair (1973) (TVM)

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I’m not going to hurt you. Courtney Patterson (Natalie Wood) is a beautiful thirty-two songwriter physically disabled due to polio. Her condition has made her emotionally guarded and she’s never been in a relationship, but when she meets Marcus Simon (Robert Wagner), a handsome older attorney from the law firm employed by her father (Kent Smith), she cautiously moves towards romance. Although Courtney remains wary of intimacy, Marcus slowly wins her over. Unfortunately, her family is not supportive of their relationship, providing yet another obstacle that the couple must overcome.  When they move in together the divorced Marcus is walking on eggshells and despite their deep love for one another they find they are actually worlds apart… I don’t want anyone calling my kid Sport. Especially if he’s living in my house. The fabled love affair of Wood and Wagner had recently been sealed in marriage for the second time around and the couple play wonderfully together. Wood is magnificent in a complex role and Wagner responds to her with admiration and not a little awe:  we see her through his eyes. It’s marvellously written by the late great Barbara Turner, with just enough action, some ripe dialogue and is sensitively achieved, permitting Wood to convey an array of emotions in a reaction, her face as ever an open wound. She sings a song a number of times in the story – I Can’t See You Any More, small solace perhaps a decade after being unhappily dubbed for West Side Story. Watching this performance it’s astonishing to think of her finely tuned style being so little deployed in the years that followed – and it’s impossible not to mention her terrible death eight years later, presumably at Wagner’s hands. Ironically it’s the girlfriend (Jamie Smith Jackson) of her brother Jamie (Bruce Davison) whose belly she pats when she sees the girl is expecting – Wood was herself pregnant with the daughter she named for this character, Courtney. It’s a bittersweet valentine to first love. Directed by Gilbert Cates.  I touched someone. Someone touched me. We knew each other

Mad To Be Normal (2017)

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I’ve seen what families do to each other. During the 1960s, renegade Scottish psychiatrist R. D. Laing (David Tennant) courts controversy within his profession for his approach to the field, and for the unique community he creates for his patients to inhabit at Kingsley Hall, the ‘anti-asylum’ Laing established in the east of London where group therapy replaces mind-deadening medicine. He carries out experiments using LSD to repair the trauma endured by Sydney Kotok (Michael Gambon) and believes in the self-healing practice of metanoia, which arouses the ire of his colleagues, while in his private life he engages in a relationship with American student Angie Wood (Elisabeth Moss)…  You can’t even tell me how it works. A psychedelic psychodrama about psychiatry? I’m in! Sort of. The charismatic Scot was a controversial and cult-ish figure at the best of times, latterly better known for his drunken TV appearances than the significance of his work in the community. The issues that always proliferate in biographical drama are important here – his romance with a student is a fiction and his daughter’s death from leukaemia is brought forward by ten years, contracting a lot of drama into a five year period, perhaps questionable decisions amplified by the importance of someone who wanted to demystify psychological illness as well as be kind to patients. What this lacks in budget (those cheap Sixties tropes!) is compensated for in big performances not least by Tennant, declaiming in his natural accent. Gambon and Moss are their usual reliable selves, with some nice character colours, while it’s good to see Byrne as shambling old Anglo-Irish gent Jim, on the other side of the psychiatrist’s couch for a change after his years playing a TV shrink. Whatever the shortcomings on the directing front, this is a fascinating portrait of a counterculture hero and a sympathetic insight into people who desperately need to be allowed to live independently, without all the noise. Written by first-time director (and Laing biographer) Robert Mullan and Tracy Moreton. She felt her true self was murdered

Black Swan (2010)

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The only person standing in your way is you.  Featured dancer Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is a young NYC ballerina whose passion for the dance rules every facet of her life which is rigidly controlled at home by her disappointed domineering single mother Erica (Barbara Hershey) who says she gave up everything to have Nina (but she never made it out of the corps). When the company’s artistic director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) decides to replace prima ballerina Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder) for their opening production of Swan Lake, Nina is his first choice, perfect for the role of the White Swan. She has competition in newcomer Lily (Mila Kunis) however:  she personifies the Black Swan – her look, her clothing, her behaviour are literally delicate Nina’s polar opposite. As rivalry between the two dancers transforms into a twisted friendship and then into a fiercer rivalry as Lily is cast as Nina’s alternate, Nina’s dark side gradually emerges … Darren Aronofsky’s ballet film states its themes in the first frames:  a battle to the death onstage and then a hallucinatory trip tunnelling into the dark underground of New York City’s underbelly on the subway – a kind of diabolism seems writ large from the off. This psychological horror’s most recent comparator is probably Jacob’s Ladder and that’s three decades old.  But it’s really a film about femininity. The sheer repulsive physicality of it is offputting and not for the squeamish:  the bulimic purging; the bloodied squashed misshapen feet; ripping off of cuticles; continuous self-harming – Nina’s long nails tear at her shoulder and then she sees feathers sprouting in the holes; licking a spot of cake frosting constitutes a meal;  and when Beth takes the knife Nina has returned and stabs herself in the face. The sheer proliferation of close ups of skin is revolting. It’s also in the little things – Nina thinking everyone is talking about her (they are); the lights being switched off when she needs to rehearse;  the piano accompanist refusing to stay late; the need to please the director – when he asks her about her sexual experience and tells her to masturbate and she wakes up and does it in her bed only to find Mom in the chair beside her … Now that’s horrifying! The truth is when I look at you all I see is the white swan. Yes you’re beautiful, fearful, and fragile. Ideal casting. But the black swan? It’s a hard fucking job to dance both  Nina’s fragile mind is devastated by the pressure to perform with feeling rather than mere technical skill and first she thinks she sees herself everywhere in the form of a double – behind her own reflection, walking towards her in the subway – and her mind becomes fragmented in her own image. Then she sees … Lily. Lily the Black Swan. Lily who smokes, drinks, takes drugs and then goes down on her. Or does she?  The lines between dream and reality are blurred. Portman is great as the ingenue who needs to please and we are reminded of The Red Shoes, that classic balletomane’s film, and there are echoes of that madness and drive for perfection everywhere. Hershey, Kunis and Ryder are no less good in their supporting roles, buffeting the central thematic, the narrative’s corps de ballet. This is about obsession and we follow Nina right over the other side and into out and out madness and disbelief.  The climax brings everything together in the most devastating, logical fashion. Performance is all.  Mad, crazed and melodramatic, this is absolutely on the money when it comes to female (and mother-daughter) rivalry and is literally a danse macabre.  Written by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John J. McLaughlin.

Cries and Whispers (1972)

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It is early Monday morning and I am in pain.  At the turn of the twentieth century, Agnes (Harriet Andersson) slowly and painfully dies of cancer in the family’s country home. Her sisters are so immersed in their own problems that they can’t offer her the support she needs as she goes through a nightmare of torture. Shallow Maria (Liv Ullmann) is wracked with guilt at her husband’s suicide following his discovery of her  affair. Self-loathing, suicidal Karin (Ingrid Thulin) seems to regard her sister with revulsion. Only Anna (Kari Sylwan), the deeply religious maid who lost her young child, seems able to offer the solitary dying Agnes solace and empathy as her condition deteriorates and her sisters are helpless in their eternal feuding … Ingmar Bergman went as far as he could in Persona to explore identity:  here he holds up a mirror to the pain we cause each other even as death stares us in the face. It is so stark a confrontation and so formal a construct that it shocks. He described it simply as a chamber play in red about a dying woman and her sisters. The colour scheme devised with cinematographer Sven Nykvist seems to ooze life and threaten death and the filtered photography has a quality that niggles the brain. This is pessimistic and filled with dread, certainly, but it is also haunting and unforgettable, a master at work in a film that excited global audiences and earned multiple Academy Award nominations.

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Ingrid Goes West (2017)

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Talk about something cool, like food or clothes or Joan Didion!  Ingrid Thorburn (Aubrey Plaza) goes nuts at her friend’s wedding to which she hasn’t been invited and pepper sprays her.  Thing is, the bride isn’t her friend, she’s someone Ingrid follows on Instagram.  It lands her in a mental hospital. She idolises social media star and Instagram ‘influencer’ Taylor Sloane  (Elizabeth Olsen) to the point that she reckons all those ‘likes’ constitute an invitation to her to ingratiate herself with the LA-based narcissist and moves there with money her late mom has bequeathed and promptly kidnaps the woman’s dog so she can claim the reward and ‘friend’ her in real life. Taylor’s husband Ezra (Wyatt Russell) is a technophobic artist whose work Taylor gushes over but he seems nice underneath all the boho-chic So-Cal lifestyle. Ingrid makes his only sale. Ingrid’s neighbour Dan Pinto (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) is a wannabe screenwriter obsessed with Batman whom she seduces in order to smooth her way socially with Taylor’s gang. Everything seems to go swimmingly until Taylor’s druggie brother Nicky (Billy Magnussen) turns up and figures out Ingrid’s game.  He blackmails her and she has to come up with a superhero-inspired solution to his threat to reveal her stalking to his sister  …  Co-written by David Branson Smith with director Matt Spicer, which makes me ponder once again why it is that sometimes men are better than women at exploiting the vagaries of female friendship (read:  rivalry) even if it winds up in a rather violent and cataclysmic denouement – with a twist. Well Ingrid is mentally ill, after all and Nicky knows she has Single White Femaled Taylor. This is smart and funny and topical and gets under your skin about what it is to be popular and the nature of contemporary life while retaining a caustic perspective. Performed with gusto by the principals and produced by the unstoppable Plaza who totally gets why reality is being subverted and image is everything. (Maybe that’s why she has 1.6 million followers on Instagram.) This is what happens when your followers actually follow you. Message:  don’t live on your phone, there’s more to life than avocado and, as we are all branding our lives now, society is experiencing an existential crisis. Sheesh …

Psycho 3 (1986)

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She can’t help it. She can’t help the things she does. She’s just an old lady. A nun commits suicide at a convent. Her disturbed colleague Maureen Coyle (Diana Scarwid) runs away and hitches a ride through the desert with Duane Duke (Jeff Fahey) but after he makes a move on her during a rainstorm she runs off.  When she arrives at a small town diner she asks where she might stay.  Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) is once again operating his infamous motel. Assisted by the shifty Duke, an excessively tan Norman keeps up the semblance of being sane and ordinary, but he still holds on to some macabre habits. Eventually, Norman becomes interested in Maureen when she turns up at the motel and reminds him of Marion Crane. As Norman and Maureen begin a relationship, can he keep his demons in check? And now there’s a reporter Tracy Venable (Roberta Maxwell) on the prowl keen for a scoop on the legendary mother killer with a revelation about the identity of Emma Spool (from Psycho II) … This was Anthony Perkins’ directing debut, revisiting very familiar territory with plenty of Hitchcock’s signature tropes albeit none of his style and an excess of grisly if blackly comic violence.  The rarefied Scarwid is a good choice for the Marion lookalike and the film is filled with ideas of Hitchcock’s trumpeted Catholicism as well as opening with an homage to Vertigo and incorporating a scene out of Psycho. It’s quite amusing to have Norman portrayed as the Mother of God saving the troubled nun who’s as with it as her romantic interest but this is as subtle as a sledgehammer and won’t make you forget the original any time soon. There’s even something of a happy ending – relatively speaking. Written by Charles Edward Pogue, this is not connected with Robert Bloch’s third novel in the series, Psycho House.

Videodrome (1983)

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This has something you don’t have Max. It has a philosophy. And that’s what makes it dangerous. Max Renn (James Woods) is the director of a UHF TV channel operating out of Toronto in the early 80s looking for new material. He picks up a channel specialising in torture and violence which appears to be operating out of Pittsburgh. When his new girlfriend radio host Nikki Brand (Blondie’s Debbie Harry) disappears and turns up in one of their snuff movies he finds out too late that his violent hallucinations are happening because of what he’s been exposed to on videotapes which aren’t being broadcast at all – they’re being targeted at powerful people to exert mind control in a disintegrating society … David Cronenberg’s film has such a predictive quality despite some yucky special effects by Rick Baker. Made a decade before the internet became public, this is a satirical disquisition on the dangers of virtual reality and the closing of the distance between hard and soft technology – just watch what Woods does with his own abdomen, the new slot for a live VCR that has a direct connection with his brain! After Scanners made him famous this is the body horror that Cronenberg brought to bear on the idea of censorship and the belief run riot in those days that watching violent films bred violence in the viewer.  Woods’ ‘paranoid intellectualism’ as Cronenberg has it is just the disparaging stance that this subject needs to express this film’s very black comedy.  Long live the new flesh indeed.