Tag Archives: American cinema

The Glass Key

The Glass Key

Format: Blu-ray

Release date: 19 September 2016

Distributor: Arrow Academy

Director: Stuart Heisler

Writer: Jonathan Latimer

Based on the novel by: Dashiell Hammett

Cast: Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, Brian Donlevy

USA 1942

86 mins

Masculinity is the true focus of Stuart Heisler’s noir tale of crime, power and lust.

Power, corruption and lies are at the burning heart of The Glass Key, with lust adding fuel to the fire. It’s election season, and local power broker Paul Madvig (Brian Donlevy) has unexpectedly decided to throw his weight behind the reform candidate Ralph Henry, turning his back on his own shady interests and his gangster cohorts. The reason: Henry’s beautiful, clever daughter Janet (Veronica Lake), who’s more than happy to take advantage of Madvig’s intentions to help her father’s campaign.

But events are complicated further when Janet’s gambling-addicted brother Taylor, in debt to Madvig’s former partner-in-crime Nick Varna (and also secretly involved with Madvig’s sister Opal), turns up dead, his body found by Ed Beaumont (Alan Ladd), Madvig’s right-hand man. The death becomes a pivotal moment in the power struggle between Varna and Madvig, with Beaumont’s involvement, rather predictably, ensnaring Madvig, Janet and himself in a love triangle. It’s classic noir territory, although Stuart Heisler’s 1942 adaptation of the Dashiell Hammett novel doesn’t quite sit as easily alongside some of the greats from the genre, due to its slow, muddy start.

Donlevy plays Madvig as something of a clown, his romantic volte-face derided by his opponents, while everyone seems to know that Janet is playing him for a fool. Veronica Lake is icy in her demeanour, all chiselled cheekbones and glossy, smooth hair, any feelings she has buried beneath her cynical exterior. But The Glass Key is really Alan Ladd’s picture (despite some good lines, Lake is criminally underused in the film). Beaumont comes into his own after Taylor’s death; though initially a suspect himself, he’s canny and connected enough to get himself off the hook, using guile and misdirection to figure out who is behind the murder. But Varna is clever too, sensing blood when Madvig emerges as the most likely suspect.

Everyone is in somebody’s pocket, including the local newspaper owner and the district attorney, with everyone looking after their own skin. It’s these sleazy back-room deals that make the film compelling, the tension increasing as Beaumont finds himself in increasing danger. The Glass Key really picks up after Varna decides to get to Madvig through Beaumont, taking a satisfyingly dark turn that leads to the film’s most explosive and powerful scenes. While Ladd fails in this as a romantic lead, with some wooden acting in his scenes with Lake, and, through no fault of his own, some laughable soft-focus close-ups, he excels as a man fighting for his life. In the end, the most compelling relationship in the film is the one that develops between Beaumont and one of Varna’s thugs, Jeff (William Bendix), who is full of admiration for his opponent’s fighting spirit.

In the end, it barely seems to matter who murdered Taylor, the film more concerned with the themes of honour, loyalty and masculinity. Despite its early failings, there are moments when The Glass Key really shines, with some classic cinematography, plenty of innuendo, and some standout performances, especially from the minor characters.

Sarah Cronin

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls

Format: Blu-ray

Release date: 5 September 2016

Distributor: Arrow Video

Director: Russ Meyer

Writers: Roger Ebert, Russ Meyer

Cast: Dolly Read, Cynthia Myers, Marcia McBroom

USA 1970

110 mins

Much love for Russ Meyer and Roger Ebert’s deliriously libidinous all-girl rock band melodrama.

***** out of *****

‘This is my happening and it freaks me out,’ declares rock impresario Ronnie ‘Z-Man’ Barzell (John LaZar) during his berserker Hollywood party replete with live performances by The Strawberry Alarm Clark, a bevy of boobilicious babes, all manner of fornication and bucket-loads of booze/drug consumption.

Z-Man wasn’t the only one freaking out. When Russ Meyer (Faster Pussycat Kill Kill, Motor Psycho), the king of big-boob cinema extravaganzas, unleashed his first major studio picture Beyond the Valley of the Dolls upon an unsuspecting public, audiences, critics and the film’s major backer, Twentieth Century Fox, were freaked out to the max.

For good reason.

The opening few minutes of Meyer’s Roger Ebert-scripted dive into L.A. sleaze pits proceed to bash us in the face with Z-Man and Martin Bormann (Henry Rowland), Z’s loyal bartender, right-hand man and resident Nazi (nom-de-plumed as ‘Otto’), whilst the nutty pair malevolently chase scantily clad babes within a seaside mansion estate. In a climactic moment to end all climactic moments, we cut to a Luger sensually stroking the supple lips of a beauteous-sleeping-big-bosomed-babe until the deadly firearm is inserted erect-penis-like into her mouth, the wet maw eagerly – nay, greedily – accepting the cold-steel schwance-of-death as our dozing dame proceeds to suck it dry.

Under the circumstances, who wouldn’t? (Be freaked out to the max, that is.) (Oh, okay, and suck it dry, too.)

When Meyer and young film critic Ebert were hired by Fox to concoct a vague semi-sequel reboot to Mark Robson’s through-the-roof sex-and-soap-suds adaptation of Jacqueline Susann’s bestselling novel Valley of the Dolls, the artistic pursuits of these perfectly matched reprobates flew under the radar of studio executives during the delightful beginnings of the oft-envied, late lamented and much-revered ‘Easy Riders, Raging Bulls’ days of American Cinema. The film was so low-budget by studio standards, nobody in the front office paid it much mind, but for Meyer, the budget might as well have been as large as Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra.

He did not waste one cent.

Plot wise, things are relatively simple and perfectly in keeping with Susann’s moronically simplistic rags-to-riches-to-rags soap opera. However, the incorrigible lads dole out a cinematic masterpiece of flagrant filth that’s anything but moronic and in its own strangely perverse way is rooted (so to speak) in a queer miasma of morality. If anything the film celebrates perversion to such a deliciously over-the-top degree that the tale cannot help but become a morality play. (That said, the film brilliantly manages to make the morality seem as old-fashioned as it deserves to be – it’s even vaguely derisive.)

So, the film focuses on the buxom Carrie Nations, an all-girl rock band comprised of Kelly MacNamara (Dolly Read), Casey Anderson (Cynthia Myers) and Petronella ‘Pet’ Danforth (Marcia McBroom). At first they’re infused with the down-home, corn-fed morals of the mid-western US of A, but in no time, they’re turfing their regular squeezes for a series of libidinous adventures with a variety of partners. One of the cuckolded beaus (David Gurian) even takes up with a porn starlet (Edy Williams) who drains him to such a degree that he eventually can’t even get it up.

Fun and games, for one and all – especially the audience – but as this epic of sin continues, the freedom of youth increasingly morphs beyond the ‘summer of love’ antics, and the evils of both L.A. and show business in general give way to an unholy Walpurgisnacht that unravels during the film’s deeply dark finale. (The Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten proclaimed that the film was ‘true to life’. Who are we to argue with this?)

Ebert and Meyer created a work that’s drenched in lurid colour and the colours of sleaze, slime and scum, and we’re allowed to revel in the kaleidoscopic picture with all the giddy laughs it wrenches from us from beginning to end, along with the trademark Meyer montages of rapid-fire cuts – a chiaroscuro of madness and freakishness at its finest. This is sheer sex-drenched melodrama; as a director, Meyer might as well be Douglas Sirk on crack cocaine.

Besides, what other movie features (again, from the highly quotable Z-Man) one of the greatest lines of dialogue in movie history: ‘You will drink the black sperm of my vengeance!’

Black sperm, indeed.

Years ago, I met Ebert as a young lad and proceeded to geek him out with my love for the film. He took me for donuts and we spent an hour together talking about it. His final words to me were thus: ‘Never, ever feel ashamed to admit how much you love Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.’

And if you’re listening up there, Mr Ebert, I am not ashamed.

I’m infused with pride to declare my utter, deep passion.

Greg Klymkiw

Three Days of the Condor

Three Days of the Condor
Three Days of the Condor

Format: Dual Format (DVD + Blu-ray)

Release date: 11 April 2016

Distributor: Eureka Entertainment

Director: Sydney Pollack

Writers: Lorenzo Semple Jr., David Rayfiel

Cast: Robert Redford, Faye Dunaway

USA 1975

118 mins

Sydney Pollack’s tale of CIA deceit is a great New York film and an entertaining conspiracy thriller.

‘Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.’
Joseph Heller, Catch-22

In the early 1970s the American people were finally becoming aware of the nefarious doings of the Central Intelligence Agency. The New York Times was publishing the leaked ‘Pentagon Papers’ (despite CIA attempts to block this); The Rockefeller Commission revealed Project MKUltra, an illegal mind-control programme; and the Watergate Scandal was slowly revealing how responsibility for such criminality reached highest level – the President himself. There were accusations of the CIA illegally printing their own bank notes; of supporting Pinochet’s coup d’état in Chile; and even an accusation that one operative had been selling real-life plots to spy novelists.

A short cycle of films appeared around this time that seemed to reflect this world of surveillance and paranoia, cover-ups and lies. In Three Days of the Condor (1975) the enemy within is clearly labelled as the CIA. The film’s hero Joe Turner (Robert Redford) works for ‘the company’, employed to read books and add his analysis to a computer database. He returns from lunch to find all his co-workers murdered. [SPOILER ALERT] He soon discovers the murderers are within the CIA, but the real bad guys are a ‘CIA within the CIA’ – an extremist splinter group with aims to invade the Middle East unknown to ‘the company’ heads. It was perhaps this ‘few bad apples’ cop-out that helped placate the CIA chiefs who were invited to a pre-release screening. [END OF SPOILER]

Sydney Pollack directs with great style and invention. The use of real locations gives the film a realism that recalls Henry Hathaway’s FBI film The House on 92nd Street (1945). Three Days of the Condor is also a great New York film. We see the Twin Towers, the Guggenheim Museum, Central Park, deli sandwiches, pretzels and yellow taxis galore. It is less a ‘gritty realism’ and more of a ‘shabby realism’ – grey rainy weather, overflowing rubbish bins, an office of jammed printers, awkwardly stacked books and chain-smoking receptionists. Even the opening credits with their computer-style font – which must have made the film seem very up-to-date in 1975 – remind us of the dull technology of the workplace. This may be a spy-thriller but we are a long way from James Bond.

The cinematography is self-consciously stylised with shots through branches and windscreen wipers but in general this adds nicely to the mood of the film. It is only in the love scene – where the love making is intercut with black and white artistic photographs of empty park benches to the soundtrack of the ubiquitous sexy saxophone (perhaps a novel idea in 1975) – that the style is over-cooked. The intricacies of plot (I’m still not sure why they were after him) and the occasional ethical and political pronouncements are not allowed to intrude too much. It is of course a major Hollywood studio film with A-list stars and it would be unfair to expect a detailed analysis of CIA wrongdoings. What we have is a genre film – a man-on-the-run thriller much like Hitchcock’s North by Northwest or Sabateur – with the CIA as the ‘macguffin’.

The film is fortunate in the casting of Robert Redford as a bookish intellectual who can win a shootout in an alley, kidnap and seduce Faye Dunaway and outfox the CIA phone call tracking unit. Redford can do all these with a degree of plausibility. He can be an appreciator of artistic photography and – as Dunaway’s character puts it – he’s ‘a very sweet man to be with’ – although the way Dunaway’s character falls for her abductor suggests that the film’s sexual politics are rather less than progressive.

Although Three Days of the Condor is the perhaps a little brother to the genre’s masterpieces – Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) and Alan J. Pakula’s The Parallax View (1974) and All the President’s Men (1976) – it a well-crafted and entertaining film with a few political points to be made. Sydney Pollack and Robert Redford were both well-known for their politically liberal tendencies. They had previously worked together on the ecological Western Jeremiah Johnson (1972). It is those key liberal values of honesty, openness and democracy that the CIA are shown to be against. But perhaps the only really interesting political point is when Cliff Robertson attempts to defend the CIA as dedicated government agents who believe what they are doing is for the good of the American people. The film ends with Turner putting his trust in that great bastion of the liberal press – The New York Times. In the final freeze-frame the fear and doubt on his face shows what would happen if that freedom of the press were lost.

Paul Huckerby

Watch the trailer:



Format: Dual Format (DVD + Blu-ray)

Release date: 28 März 2016

Distributor: Eureka Entertainment

Director: Nicolas Roeg

Writer: Paul Mayersberg

Based on the book Who Killed Sir Harry Oakes? by: Marshall Houts

Cast: Gene Hackman, Theresa Russell, Rutger Hauer

UK, USA 1983

130 mins

Nicolas Roeg’s overlooked saga about the spectacular rise and fall of a gold prospector is a rich and audacious masterwork.

English literature sprang from two works of the 17th century, the plays of William Shakespeare and the King James Bible. One tradition is opulent, chaotic, luxurious and indulgent; the other is disciplined, austere, skinny and sharp. One is a meadow; the other’s a lawn. And so it is with British cinema. We have the lawn cinema of David Lean, Merchant Ivory and The King’s Speech, and we have the wild flowers and nettle stings of Lindsay Anderson, Ken Russell and Ben Wheatley. The outstanding artist of the latter tradition is Nicolas Roeg, who from his collaboration on Performance in 1970 went on to direct a string of bizarre, crotchety, uncomfortable and fiercely odd masterpieces. Following the acknowledged brilliance of Walkabout, Don’t Look Now and The Man who Fell to Earth, Bad Timing saw Roeg entering the 80s with a fractured sexual relationship and a typically daring play on chronology. The obstinate insistence on originality was not well received in a decade that would prize muscles and franchises.

His follow-up Eureka in 1983 likewise sailed against the prevailing winds of capitalist triumphalism and nascent yuppiedom. Gene Hackman plays Jack McCann, a prospector in the frozen Yukon, battling against the elements and whose cussed stubbornness is finally rewarded with a gold strike. If things spill and smash in the dirty Venice of Don’t Look Now, here in Eureka everything bursts. It might be the back of a suicidal man’s head as the bullet smashes through it, or it could be the wall of a cave as it collapses and almost drowns Jack in a gold-laden torrent. The irreversible suddenness of the now is caught by the title – an instantaneous revelation of how the universe operates – and Roeg’s interests are a deep consideration on the hidden cogs and wires that pull at life and fate and the violence that can at any moment flare up.

With the gold found and riches won, Roeg and screenwriter Paul Mayersberg overleap Jack’s success and land once more in failure decades later. Now Jack is the richest man in the world, living on a Caribbean island surrounded by natives he holds in racist contempt, a wife he largely ignores and a sycophantic and untrustworthy friend Charles (Ed Lauter), who is conspiring against him. His one consolation might be his daughter Tracy (Theresa Russell) with whom he shares a close friendship, but her elopement and marriage to playboy Claude (Rutger Hauer) suggest that Jack is being destroyed by the gold that has made him rich. Mickey Rourke and Joe Pesci are two mobbed up accountants seeking, with the sneaky aid of Charles, to open a casino on the island and slowly realizing that Jack is an immoveable object with too much ‘fuck you’ money to be bought.

‘Once I had it all. Now I just have everything,’ Jack says. His self-mythologizing as the ultimate self-made man – ‘I never lived off the sweat of another man’s brow’ – and his Croesus-like wealth don’t however make him invulnerable and there is a weary acceptance to his fate as he, like Kurtz in Apocalypse Now (Roeg would later make a TV movie adaptation of Heart of Darkness), welcomes his murderers into his lair either as a blessed relief or a longed-for challenge. But when it comes Jack’s murder is no soft euthanasia but one of the most brutal and violent slaughters ever put on screen. With the rain pouring outside and a blow torch brought into play, it is almost as if Jack is an ancient God who needs not simply to be killed, but to be cleansed, defaced and utterly destroyed. His murder is preceded by a black magic orgy that Claude participates in. Sex bursts through Eureka as a violent compulsion, an appetite to be assuaged, but also a link to life and death moments. Jack will be guided to the gold by a brothel-keeper/soothsayer and Claude’s orgy is an attempt to establish an alibi and also cleanse the would-be assassin.

The remaining court scenes are an extended coda as the legal formalities of blame and aftermath insufficiently wrap up the violent eruption while the money men sit at the back. It is now Tracy who shows that her father’s obstinate will has lived on in her, but now graced by her own continued zest for life and capacity to love.

Eureka is a bold uncompromising work by a filmmaker at the height of his powers who seems intent on throwing it all away. Its influence can be seen throughout Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterpiece There Will Be Blood. Today more than ever it seems a prescient critique of a philosophy that places so much value on a rare but practically unaccomplished metal.

John Bleasdale

The Invitation

The Invitation
The Invitation

Format: Cinema

Seen at LFF 2015

Director: Karyn Kusama

Writers: Phil Hay, Matt Manfredi

Cast: Michiel Huisman, Logan Marshall-Green, John Carroll Lynch

USA 2015

97 mins

Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and Eden (Tammy Blanchard) split up two years ago after a tragic accident drove them apart. Now he and his new girlfriend are invited to a dinner party in Los Angeles with Eden, her new partner David (Michiel Huisman) and a handful of old friends, at their old house in the hills. The evening’s festivities were, perhaps inevitably going to be a trifle strained, but from the moment Will enters the house he senses that something is a little…off. Maybe it’s the two new friends of Eden and David‘s, who seem overly familiar and willing to get intimate, maybe it’s the guest that persistently fails to show up. Maybe it’s Eden herself, with her blissed out smile and her claims to have banished pain from her life. It could be just his grief, and his resentment of her happiness blossoming into paranoia, but something is…off. And as the night wears on his certainty that the hosts have a hidden agenda grows, something more sinister than swinging or scientology…

A masterclass in sustained unease, The Invitation had me more agreeably creeped out than any film in recent memory. The prevalence of ‘I appreciate your honesty’ L.A. therapy speak alone gave me the terrors. Add that to the accretion of unsettling details and the claustrophobic, chamber piece setting and your brain is screaming; ‘Run! Get the hell out of there!’ at the guests before the first 40 minutes are up. But the genius of the construction is that there’s nothing specific that Will can point to to justify his fears. Or rather, the bar for committing the social transgression of telling the hosts to go fuck themselves has not yet been met, especially after they’ve broken out the ’8-million dollar wine’. And that moment remains elusive. Until….

Performances are all excellent, especially Tammy Blanchard, whose Eden is all tactile gestures and fragile positivity. The camerawork is fluid and unfussy with a nice line in unbalanced compositions, and the focus is on telling body language and expression and well edited reaction shots. I love how the outwardly desirable house becomes a scarily unreadable beige and brown prison. And I love how it never lets you off the hook until the final payoff. A proper skincrawler.

This review is part of our LFF 2015 coverage.

Mark Stafford

Medium Cool

Medium Cool
Medium Cool

Format: Dual Format (DVD + Blu-ray)

Release date: 31 August 2015

Distributor: Eureka Entertainment

Director: Haskell Wexler

Writer: Haskell Wexler

Cast: Robert Forster, Verna Bloom, Peter Bonerz, Marianna Hill

USA 1969

111 mins

‘Look out Haskell, it’s real!’ There is a moment towards the end of the relatively overlooked counterculture masterwork Medium Cool, newly released on DVD by Eureka Entertainment, where these urgent words shake filmmaker and viewer alike. The movie cameras themselves are quite literally shaking and flailing in front of a cloud of tear gas, as the film’s fictional narrative – a love story between a television news reporter and a poor, single mother from Appalachia living in Chicago’s ghetto – reaches its denouement against the very real backdrop of the 1968 Democratic National Convention protest, where the National Guard is deploying tactics surreally seen rehearsed earlier in the film.
Influenced by directors of the French New Wave and the cinema vérité movement, which he was a part of, veteran filmmaker Haskell Wexler’s approach in Medium Cool is an unusual and electrifying one: by following and filming social and political ferment in Chicago and Washington D.C. throughout the tumult of 1968, he captured a sprawling patchwork of real events, onto which he hung a conventional scripted tale of romance and political awakening. Wexler, together with his small crew, was adept at gaining access to events that would most likely be highly controlled today. Hence, in the first half of the film, we see National Guard members practising their military drill on colleagues dressed up in whacked-out garb and aping hippie culture, as seen through the establishment’s eyes. Talcum powder ‘tear gas’ is fired while ludicrous lines are spewed out by a fake political figure: ‘We’ve given you everything we thought you wanted… We let you use our swimming pool, every 4th of July’.

The spoken warning at the demonstration – although sounding like a spontaneous cry – was in fact recorded after events and spoken by Wexler’s son as a voice-over; another example of the blurring of fact and fiction that makes Medium Cool such a compelling study on the nature of film. The words serve as a reminder to Wexler and his audience alike that the tear gas on screen is no longer the stuff of theatrical training exercises at Camp Ripley but a real physical threat in the city street; and, in doing so, the words underline the mollifying distance created by film, both in those creating and viewing footage. It is not only at this meta-moment that we are made aware of such things; John Cassellis (Robert Forster), the cameraman-protagonist of Medium Cool, acts as Wexler’s vehicle for a long meditation on the power and ethics of the moving image as a social force.

Indeed, Medium Cool is an overtly political film, which saw its release delayed while another counterculture landmark of 1969 – Easy Rider – faced fewer obstacles. Perhaps, as Wexler has later reflected, Dennis Hopper’s cultural revolution was more easily co-opted than his own vision of concurrent attempts at political revolution. Through footage of real-life events, improvised set-ups and straight-to-camera soliloquies, Wexler weaves a complex tapestry of voices, from African-American political radicals to the dirt-poor Appalachian community of Chicago’s Uptown, representing viewpoints and ideas found outside the freewheelin’ hippies or diffident heroes of New Hollywood.
A collage of competing words, sounds and images, Wexler’s feature is a chaotic, experimental mess of a film; and, because of that, it acts as a perfect artefact from, and record of, its time. The breadth and force of social and political unrest called for a special kind of film, one that reacted to and reflected the changing situation rather than trying to restrain or dictate its subject matter. And, while Medium Cool may be a perfect time capsule of America in 1968, it should also be seen as vital viewing for today, part of an ongoing conversation in which these very same questions surface time and time again.

Eleanor McKeown

Watch the trailer:

The Sweet Smell of Success

Sweet Smell of Success
The Sweet Smell of Success

Format: Blu-ray

Release date: 30 March 2015

Distributor: Arrow Video

Director: Alexander Mackendrick

Writers: Clifford Odets, Ernest Lehman, Alexander Mackendrick

Cast: Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, Susan Harrison

USA 1957

96 mins

***** out of *****

Directed to perfection by Alexander Mackendrick and starring Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis at the peak of their considerable powers as actors, The Sweet Smell of Success provides a stunning film noir portrait of the sleazy world of 50s press agents and gossip columnists in New York City. Written by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman, based on Lehman’s novella and featuring considerable uncredited rewrites by Mackendrick himself, the picture is blessed with one of the great screenplays of all time. In terms of story structure, characterization and dialogue, few American films can match it.

J.J. Hunsecker (Lancaster) is a Walter Winchell-like newspaperman of unparalleled power and popularity. The signs and billboards splashed everywhere on the Isle of Manhattan are adorned with an image of his trademark heavy-framed spectacles, accompanied by copy that proclaims him to be ‘The Eyes of Broadway’. Nothing, as the film proves, escapes the God-like gaze of Hunsecker. He makes and breaks politicians and show business personalities with a few deft strokes of his vitriolic pen.

He is, of course, fed many of his laudatory and/or scurrilous items by the bottom feeders of the business, the press agents who charge their clients a pretty penny to keep their names in the papers and in the most positive manner possible. The king of them all, the sleaziest benthos in all of New York is none other than Sidney Falco (Curtis). He’s equal parts detritivore and carnivore – a sea cucumber when he needs to be, and a stingray, which he mostly wants to be. He values his ability to keep his clients happy, score new clients and to curry favour with Hunsecker in hopes he’ll achieve the same level of success.

When Hunsecker’s little sister Susie (Susan Harrison) is courted by Steve Dallas (Martin Milner), an up-and-coming jazz musician, the innate snobbery of the omnipotent scribe kicks in, but even more compelling is his foul, incestuous obsession with her. He charges Sidney with digging up enough dirt on the young fellow in order to keep his sister in his own clutches and no other man’s.

Sidney’s complex machinations take up much of the film’s running time and are so on the edge of a kind of insanity, that the entire world Mackendrick, Odets and Lehman etch borders on the surreal. What Hunsecker wants is no mere separation twixt his sister and her lover.

‘I want that boy taken apart,’ he intones so quietly and malevolently.

There is no doubt that dialogue seems to drive much of the film’s drama. There have to be more immortal lines in the picture than many of the rest all put together.

‘Match me, Sidney,’ Hunsecker demands, seeking Falco’s compliance with his request for a cigarette light.

‘I make no brief for my bilious private life,’ Sidney slimily ejaculates upon the sleazy rival columnist Otis Elwell (David White), in order to make him believe he’s through with Hunsecker, ‘but he’s got the morals of a guinea pig and the scruples of a gangster’.

Every line is a gem and Hunsecker gets the lion’s share of them. One of the best is his descriptive invective hurled in Sidney’s direction:

‘I wouldn’t like to take a bite of you; you’re a cookie full of arsenic.’

The simplest and most evocative line occurs when Hunsecker considers a woman’s caterwauling laughter and the sight of a drunk being tossed from a 52nd St. bar. He literally salutes the grime and filth of New York, which we see through the gloriously grimy lens of James Wong Howe’s immortal black and white cinematography, as Hunsecker happily declares:

‘I love this dirty town.’

Dirty, indeed.

And yet, in spite of the almost non-stop dialogue, one of the more astonishing achievements of the picture is just how visual the storytelling is. Many key set pieces of verbal chicanery and manipulations can be watched with the sound completely off, and by simply observing, one is able to easily ascertain the goals of the characters.

Try it sometime.

Put on the sequence where Sidney tries to blackmail one character, then, upon failing that, attempts to dupe another with an approach he borrows from the man he’s tried to blackmail. ALL the actions and even many underlying motivations can be noted by what is SEEN, but NOT heard. After this, play the scene with sound and thrill to how the dramatic beats are there visually, and of course, enhanced delectably by the dialogue. I’ve done this with my filmmaking students who – NOT SURPRISINGLY – had never seen the film before. It works! It’s also proof positive how superb the writing is and most importantly, how breathtaking Mackendrick’s direction proved to be.

The Sweet Smell of Success is simply and purely, one of the best movies ever made.

Greg Klymkiw

The Arrow Blu-Ray release is accompanied by a bevy of sumptuous features. The best of them include Michael Brooke’s magnificent, virtually definitive essay in the attractive booklet and the great Dermot McQuarrie TV documentary Mackendrick: The Man Who Walked Away. The following are not to be sneezed at either: a restored HD presentation of a 4K digital transfer from original 35mm camera negative, the original uncompressed mono, optional English subtitles for those of us who wish to obsessively study the dialogue as the film unspools, an appreciation and scene commentary by Philip Kemp, the theatrical trailer, a gorgeous reversible sleeve with an original poster and new artwork by Chris Walker, as well as the aforementioned booklet, which also comes with Mackendrick’s own analysis of various script drafts.

White Bird in a Blizzard

White Bird in a Blizzard
White Bird in a Blizzard

Format: Cinema

Release date: 6 March 2015

Distributor: Altitude Film Distribution

Director: Gregg Araki

Writer: Gregg Araki

Based on the novel by: Laura Kasischke

Cast: Shailene Woodley, Eva Gree, Christopher Meloni

USA 2014

91 mins

So here’s Gregg Araki, blissfully mired in the late 8os again, soundtrack by Robin Guthrie and Harold Budd (of course). Cast full of photogenic shag-happy youths (of course!). Would-be traumatic events viewed through a veil of blank adolescent disaffection (…but of course!). That same nightclub that seems to feature in every one of his films pops up again, chock-full of Depeche Mode T-shirt-wearing teenagers shuffling through the frame. One wonders whether Mr Araki will ever outgrow his doomy, sun-fried obsessions, and one kind of hopes he never will.

This time it’s an adaptation of a novel (by Laura Kasischke), in which a middle-class suburban mother (Eva Green) mysteriously disappears one day, leaving her daughter Kat (Shailene Woodley) to live on with a hole in her life, troubled by dreams, endlessly wondering what happened. She moves on, trying to relate to stiff daddy (Christopher Meloni), attending therapy (with Angela Bassett), going to college, ditching ‘C average’ boyfriend Phil (Shiloh Fernandez) and seducing, with little effort, the detective in charge of her mother’s case (Thomas Jane). But eventually the pieces will fall into place, and the truth will be revealed.

White Bird in a Blizzard is a handsome beast, with bright widescreen compositions that emphasise the distance between its characters, and a thoroughly thought-through sense of design. Araki here tends to deliberately avoid establishing shots, leaving us in a world of interiors and backyards that he can fill with his wasted teens and dysfunctional adults, where the mundane and transgressive are never far apart. The prevailing mood is a kind of woozy numbness, only occasionally pierced by moments of shock, or by Eva Green’s unsettling performance as the missing mother, wine glass ever in hand, poisonous to her husband, all over her daughter’s boyfriend, throbbing with unmet desire. The film becomes a lot more compelling while she’s on screen, and frankly she wipes the floor with the younger cast, who, while fun to watch, with their profane (and occasionally anachronistic) banter, just don’t have the dimensions of mommie dearest.

The determined air of dreamy unreality that hangs over the film works against full emotional engagement, and, perversely, makes it quite a breezy watch, despite the dark and complicated possibilities of the subject matter. It’s closer to John Waters than David Lynch in the ‘sick heart of suburbia’ stakes. And while it’s more like Mysterious Skin than the flashier ‘teen apocalypse’ works in Araki’s back catalogue, it doesn’t quite bite as deep as that film. ‘You scratch the surface and there’s just… more surface’, Kat intones at one point. Well, quite. But it’s an enjoyable surface to scratch.

This review is part of our LFF 2014 coverage.

Mark Stafford

Watch the trailer:



Format: Cinema

Release date: 22 May 2015

Distributor: Metrodome

Directors: Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead

Writer: Justin Benson

Cast: Lou Taylor Pucci, Nadia Hilker

Italy, USA 2014

109 mins

A horror-imbued, science-fiction-tinged tale of rebirth and new beginnings, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s second feature avoids genre clichés to deliver an anxious exploration of romantic love. It follows young American Evan as he runs away to Italy after grief gets him into trouble at home. Coasting along with two loud Brits he met at his hostel, he arrives at a small seaside village, where he encounters the beguiling Louise, all sultry Mediterranean charm and free-spirited elusiveness. As their romance develops in this dreamy setting, it soon becomes apparent that Louise hides a dangerous, ancient secret.

A searching, fretful film, Spring probes the essence of love through earnest (at times a little clunky) dialogue. With a creature that could be a vampire, a zombie, a mutant, or a predatory animal, the horror elements are used to reveal a deep unease about the strange nature of women and their bodily transformations, as well as an intense yearning to find a way of making someone yours forever. It is the story of a taming of sorts, of the monstrous, menacing other, but also of one’s own fears, although that taming seems a little too much like wishful thinking for the resolution to be entirely convincing.

In his single-minded pursuit of love, Evan is endearingly naïve and single-minded. More experienced in many ways, Louise seems stronger and wiser, but her characterisation does not ring quite true, and she feels more like a fantasy than a real person. As she springs up in the village square almost like the incarnation of Evan’s desire, it is possible to imagine that she was conjured up by his imagination while he drifts in this far-off, foreign place.

The setting, near Pompeii, with the volcano as background, is used to great effect to create the feel of something archaic and primeval. The premise for the horrific aspect of the story is fascinating, with its insistence on scientific explanation over the supernatural, which is also part of Benson and Moorhead’s refusal to fall into easy genre categories. The story is firmly grounded in nature, with many inserts of insects, as well as unhurried sequences showing Evan’s work at the farm where he is staying, surveying the olive trees, the caterpillars that eat them and the strange brown goo produced by root rot.

Visually, it is a tremendously assured and inventive film that mixes detailed close-ups and startling aerial shots, small scale and large scale, to inscribe the nascent intimacy of the two lovers against the wider panorama of life. It is this ambition of vision together with the freshness of their talent that makes Benson and Moorhead ones to watch, and despite its weaknesses, the film as a whole, in its imperfect quest for love, has a winning dark charm.

Virginie Sélavy

This review is part of our LFF 2014 coverage.

Watch the trailer:

The Sound and the Fury

The Sound and the Fury
The Sound and the Fury

Director: James Franco

Writer: Matt Rager

Based on the novel by: William Faulkner

Cast: James Franco, Seth Rogen, Joey King, Scott Haze

USA 2014

101 mins

**** out of *****

Last year, James Franco plunged his lead actor Scott Haze into the unenviable position of having to go ‘full retard’ as a psychotic half-wit in Child of God, the genuinely great film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s shocking book. The real detriment of going ‘full retard’, however, was not scoring an Oscar, but the fact that Haze played a character who takes a crap on screen, wipes his poopy-butt with a stick, watches young lovers get it on in the back seat of their car whilst he jerks off, murders a host of honey-pies, has sex with corpses and then dons their clothing when he goes on a mad transvestite-like killing rampage against a whole passel of lawmen.

Here we are, one year later, and Franco hands the brilliant Haze the role of Jason Compson, easily one of the most reprehensible figures in American literature. Haze is probably thanking Franco for this one, though, since Franco reserves the ‘retard’ challenge all for his lonesome, playing Jason’s ‘tetched in the head’ little brother Benjy. Replete with ludicrous buck-toothed prosthetics, plenty eyeball rolling, grunting and drooling, Franco goes further on the ‘full retard’ front than any actor in film history.

This is Franco’s second stab at William Faulkner in so many years, and it far outdoes his shot at As I Lay Dying. Faulkner – to my mind – is completely unsuitable a literary source for film adaptation. God knows many have tried and failed miserably, but Franco just keeps on giving the gift that keeps on giving.

Here’s my bias. I love James Franco as a director. He spits in the face of everything and everybody, does what he damn well pleases and makes movies like nobody else in contemporary America.

Here he tackles the meandering tale of the once-rich-and-powerful Compson family dynasty of the Deep South and infuses it with the most delectably over-the-top melodrama imaginable. He divides his film into three chapters, primarily focusing upon the Compson brothers: simpleton Benjy, scumbag Jason and the doomed Quentin (Jacob Leob). In the mix we’ve got ‘fallen’ sister Caddy (Ahna O’Reilly), her ‘bastard’ child Miss Quentin (Joey King), loyal housekeeper Dilsey (Loretta Divine) and even hockey star Wayne Gretzky’s wife, Janet Jones, as the deluded Compson matriarch. The family basically snipes at each other, loses all their land, while foul Jason steals, lies, vents, abuses and bullies his way through his pathetic life.

And what of Benjy, our ‘full retard’? Well shucks, he’s a mite jealous when his beloved sister starts a-rollin’ in the hay with eager male suitors, so he begins a-stalkin’ some local gals and does somethin’ he shouldn’t ougtha be doin’.

This is pure, delicious Southern Gothic at its most insane. It even indulges in some delightful Terence Malick Tree of Life shenanigans, which play like parody of the highest order. Some might believe Faulkner would be spinning in his grave over this one, but I doubt it. I think even he might have himself as rip-roaring a good time as I did.

Greg Klymkiw

This review is part of our TIFF 2014 coverage.