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.

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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.

High-Rise (2016)

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How do you adapt and replicate JG Ballard’s dyspeptic dystopian worldview when it’s so site- and time-specific? Screenwriter Amy Jump took his 1975 novel, a cautionary tale of the collective unconscious in a tower block for posh people, and left it there – in 1975, when the shock of the future was immanent.  Sick building syndrome wasn’t a thing then but anyone who’s ever lived in an apartment knows how much further consensus must reach in order not to descend quickly into chaos with fellow inhabitants – overflowing dustbins, thin walls, the smell of cooking, that neighbour who conducts noisy sex sesssions on their balcony, the drug dealer who calls the wrong door number at six in the morning with the come-down heroin for speeders. Yes, we’ve all sadly been there. Here the sickness is apparently part of the deep-seated anti-social need for anarchy rooted in the perfect design of the building itself, whose architect Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons) lives on the top floor, apparently dictating things not so benignly, his wife riding around on a horse like a latterday Marie Antoinette. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) is the physiologist (specialty:  peeling faces from skulls) who moves in and his neighbour documentary maker Wilder (Luke Evans) unravels and seems to contaminate everyone else. Laing has guilt about his treatment of a colleague (he jumps off the building, no diving board required) and the non-stop erotic parties turn into something mad and dark and murderous.  The descent into atavism is slick and fast and people are screwing each other, torturing rivals and giving into all sorts of debased derangement. There are so many cars in the huge carpark nobody can find their own. The trash isn’t collected. The electricity’s off. There are bodies in the swimming pool. We go back to where we entered this horror story,  eating a dog on the balcony. The names have a lot of meaning – Laing clearly harkens to that scourge of psychiatric voodoo RD Laing, Wilder says it all (this is a battle between id and superego) and Royal is the out of touch monarch whose plans for society are rampantly expunged as people become convinced that the higher the floor the happier they’ll be.  The plebs are closing in. A design for life. Capitalism rocks! Un film de Ben Wheatley.

Beauty and the Beast (1991)

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This animation brought Disney back to its classic roots with Linda Woolverton’s screenplay (working from a painstaking adaptation by eleven scribes!) of the French fairytale hitting all the right story points at a rattling pace (84 minutes). It was the first animation to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. The songs by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman are pretty great and use a variety of forms including waltz and they are exceptionally well positioned in the narrative:  it helps that they are performed by experienced stage vets, including Paige O’Hara as bookworm Belle, who falls for Beast (Robby Benson) after he’s exchanged her father for her in his enchanted castle. If it falls down anywhere in it’s in the sequences outside – interestingly this is the flaw shared with its progenitor, Jean Cocteau’s magical La Belle et la bete (1946), a live action version whose animated statuary proved a spellbinding lure into the rest of the tale. On a technical level, Disney had abandoned their original hand inking technique in the late 1950s and the new CAPS system developed by Pixar enabled them to utilise a wider and more subtle colour palette in conjunction with digitalisation – just wait for your jaw to drop during the ballroom scene. Angela Lansbury and Bradley Pierce as Mrs Potts and her son Chip (of the teapot Potts) are particularly good, and Lumiere, the candlestick maitre d’hotel (Jerry Orbach) is pretty wild, with a great sidekick in Cogsworth the clock (David Ogden Stiers). All girls should have a library like the one gifted Belle and have the Academy Award-winning title song sung to them. Be Our Guest! Compelling. Produced by Don Hahn, directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise.

The Graduate (1967)

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It was Mike Nichols’ second film and his second adaptation, this time with Calder Willingham and Buck Henry translating Charles Webb’s brilliant satirical short novel. Willingham did the first draft, which Nichols discarded in favour of a rewrite by Henry. The Writers Guild determined the shared credit. And yet if you read the novel you can see that it’s a pretty straight lift and most of the film’s acclaimed dialogue is right there! Nichols had learned all he knew about making movies from watching A Place in the Sun one hundred and fifty times or more plus three days of tuition in lenses from Haskell Wexler on the set of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  Billy Wilder gifted him with his supervising editor to put this together but he quit in high dudgeon because Nichols didn’t follow his theoretical scheme – he couldn’t because he simply didn’t understand it. He needed to edit according to where he felt the camera should be. His brother had sent him a copy of an LP by a duo called Simon and Garfunkel and he played it each day in his apartment before he went to the shoot then he had a lightbulb moment and Sounds of Silence became the movie’s soundtrack after he used it to pace the editing, but it needed a new song about Mrs Robinson. The performers huddled in back of the studio for a few minutes and came back and performed their famous paean – it transpired that Simon had been working on something called ‘Mrs Roosevelt’ and they just changed the words. Dustin Hoffman is panic incarnate, Anne Bancroft’s role was offered to Doris Day but she turned it down and Katharine Ross is the lovely Elaine (sigh!). Everything Nichols had learned from George Stevens is on the screen:  the framing, the size of the shots, timing, placement, staging, the immaculately sustained tone, the perfectly judged performances that seem to radiate ordinariness and yet are precisely its opposite, these are all here in just the right measure in the story of returning college grad Benjamin Braddock and his affair with the mother of the girl he thinks he loves. This is so brilliant it simply has to be seen, again and again.

Frankenweenie (2012)

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A real return to form for Tim Burton with another stop-motion animation, this time a remake/expanded version of a decades-old short, the story of Young Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan) who is devastated by the death of his dog Sparky but through science class and an experiment on a dead frog, he learns how he might bring him back to life. A glorious spin on the Frankenstein story with a genius character by the name of Edgar, a creepy bug-eyed buck-toothed little hunchback frenemy who rats out Victor’s secret and soon all the animals in the pet cemetery are making a return … Written by Leonard Ripps (in 1984) from Burton’s original idea, with a screenplay by John August and apologies to the source, Mary Shelley who probably never saw this one coming! A great pastiche of monster movies. Brilliant, moving and funny as hell. Love it.

Room 237 (2012)

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Peace pipes. Baking soda. The end of history. Impossible windows. The Holocaust. Subliminal sexual imagery. Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining is bloody scary. And for some people who have a nitpicking obsessive completionist brain,rather like the 200 IQ Kubrick himself, there’s a world to be found in this film, frame by frame. Rodney Ascher’s documentary issues a disclaimer clarifying that nobody that ever had anything to do with the production of The Shining was involved in this in any way. Arranged in nine categories, the voice over theories are matched to (very) repetitive sequences from both The Shining and other Kubrick films (and referenced works). This is nutsville, on one level, and then you find yourself agreeing with … a lot. (Isn’t repetition and protein deprivation what the Moonies do? I digress).  Kubrick’s phenomenal intellectual breadth and depth leads you to conclude that maybe everyone here is right. And not to get too postmodern about it, meaning is in the eye of the beholder, regardless of the auteur’s intentions. He’s not around to confirm or deny, and in the words of Scatman Crothers, Room 237 is nothing. Maybe …

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2015)

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Roy Anderson has a bit of a rep as an absurdist realist filmmaker – which is perfectly reasonable, given that that’s most of our experience of life, until something shocks us out of our comfortably surreal zone. A pair of novelty item salesmen try to sell their laugh a minute stuff – that’s the very loose thread that brings a lot of disaparate seemingly random incidents together, commencing with three unconnected deaths. The dull palette, the weirdly uninventive and depressing production design and the straightforward shot compositions combine to form a conjoined tableau of death. Just what you want really.

The Devils (1971)

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A drama set in the wake of the 17th century war between Catholics and Protestants. Or, more specifically, about demonic possession, witchcraft and the denouncing of Catholic priest Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed) in Loudun, France, courtesy of some crazy-assed nuns when Cardinal Richelieu was on the prowl. Adapted from a play by John Whiting and a book by Aldous Huxley, this barely got released, given that this was the era of X-ratings and heavy censorship and there are a number of versions. This is the one where Vanessa Redgrave is the deformed nun having masturbatory hallucinations about Oliver Reed, said priest. It is horror, surrealism, politics and religion, all wrapped up in the vision of the extraordinary director Ken Russell with the splendid production design of Derek Jarman which all concludes (naturally) in a fiery conflagration. Russell was named Best Director at the Venice Film Festival despite the film being banned in Italy. A really oddly brilliant modernist essay on belief. Not easily forgotten but a bit much for 3AM. Did this really happen or was I having a particularly lucid Stilton dream? If you’re looking for an amazing read, Russell’s autobiography is just the ticket. And for some more historical background on this time, see La Reine Margot (1994), starring Isabelle Adjani, who still looks around 17 despite being in her 60s.