Saturday 18 May 2024

Article: The Jagged Edge within Cutter's Way

Cutter’s Way is a fascinating film anomaly. Released in the 80s, yet the cynical 70s tone looms over it. The wounds of Watergate and Vietnam fester from scene to scene. The blockbuster ball had started to roll at this point. All the while, Cutter’s Way (originally Cutter and Bone) fell prey to internal politics. Studio executives had no way of compartmentalising this neo-noir. There was no space for its ambiguity and contempt once the likes of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) rolled onto screens. Sliding in a few months after Cutter’s Way's dismal March release. As the decade had Hollywood move away from the grimness of the 70s era, films like Cutter’s Way felt even more uncommon. However, we should be glad this almost-forgotten gem has supporters. Radiance Films
 garnered a hefty Blu-ray release for starved noir fans to discover. Not many present-day gems would gain such a second life within the cold-blooded streaming era.

The woozy opening of Cutter’s Way evokes a very different period. A marching parade dances giddily in slow motion while Jack Nitzsche's haunting score opens proceedings. The image starts in black and white before bleeding into colour. A quiet primer that seemingly suggests a shocking ending for the film we're about to watch. The juxtaposition of aw-shucks Americana imagery alongside the anxiety-riddled audio composition hints at something dreadfully amiss with the picturesque display. These opening credits remind me of the end credits of Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper (2015). Another film that utilises American iconography ironically. The most interesting American movies seem to love dealing with the country's dying innocence.

This displacement never leaves the viewer once the story opens and the characters are introduced. It’s Fiesta night and Richard Bone (Jeff Bridges) is caught in a post-coital exchange with a married woman (Nina van Pallandt). A scene not too out of place if it were found in American Gigolo (1980). Amusingly (Nina) as the satisfied recipient of a roll in the hay with a man named Bone is of little surprise. Van Pallandt was an object of temptation in neo-noirs such as The Long Goodbye (1973) and the previously mentioned American Gigolo. However, the somewhat callous nature of Bridges’ Bone is the eye-opener here. His golden boy good looks hide an insensitive personality. The exchange between them is a beautiful set-up of character. Bone sleeps with the woman under a flimsy pretence that he's selling her husband a yacht. Being an absolute chancer, Bone then nonchalantly bums cash off the same woman using a truthful untruth about seeing an ill friend in his clapped-out car. We discover that both elements of his statement have a kernel of fact. The vehicle needs more than a service. And Bone indeed does go to see an ill friend. Yet the money is clearly for neither of these things. This short scene sums up its main character more comprehensively than many movies.

After his car claps out on him, Bone spots a man dumping what looks like a body into a trash can before driving off. Almost hitting him. Thinking nothing of it, Bone heads to the local bar and meets his friend Alex Cutter (John Heard). Cutter is his sick friend. A one-armed, one-eyed Vietnam vet with a limp in his stride and a chip on his shoulder. Cutter is a loud, obnoxious drunk who appears to be doing his best to win gold in the Offence Olympics. He seemingly does everything he can to upset and distance everyone around him. His first act is racially abusing some black men at a bar where Bone meets him. This is just the start of his antics. 

Mo (Lisa Eichhorn); Alex Cutter's long-suffering wife, is soon introduced. Finding out that Mo and Cutter are in matrimony is baffling enough. When it is realised that she and Bone haven’t blown caution to the wind, the situation becomes more difficult to believe. The inebriated jibes from a deeply resentful Cutter suggest that something may already have happened. Or that he feels it will. Bone is a callow shirker. Cutter is the insufferable loud bore. Yet Mo is the quiet bond which holds the dysfunctional trio together. It’s easy to forget that Mo has reluctantly joined the male duo in some scenes. She slowly absorbs into the background while Cutter brings the world to rights, while Bone cringes. But Mo's silence is loud. Blowing out the water the juvenile idea that the number of words in a female performance is paramount to said character’s actual actions. To know the tale of woe that has fallen upon this trio is to study her face. Although she speaks much less than her male cohorts, she can chop either man down with her comparable wit at a moment's notice.  When she does speak, often in the way of her withering, wounding put-downs, her words count.

But what did Bone see that night of the fiesta when the car broke down? His thoughts on the matter take up less space than even the sentence I used to describe them. Go back. It’s a short line. But when he half mentions the situation to Cutter, a man whose scars have him seeking righteous indignation on anyone he feels deserves it, suddenly a mystery is afoot.  This dysfunctional trio soon embark on a presumed shaggy dog story based on the murky events of what Bone saw. The urge to find out what happened becomes driven by an animated Cutter, whose desire to bring who he believes the murderer is to justice only becomes more deranged from scene to scene. One unsettling moment comes early on when Cutter listens to Bone’s story. For a man who seems to bleed whiskey, the concentration and soberness in his voice at that point become quietly concerning.

Cutter’s Way is a film with murder as an inciting incident at its heart. Yet the film keeps a viewer on tenterhooks as to whether the suspect, almost arbitrarily labelled as the killer by Cutter, ever did anything wrong. The story is far more interested in the bitter regret that gnaws at these characters every day. Anchored by three superlative performances, Cutter’s Way plays out like a grim kitchen sink drama. Bone’s uninterest in solving the so-called case highlights his trait as a commitment phobe. Cutter is extremely happy to remind Bone that he doesn’t see things through. Yet looking at the scant “evidence” of the case, Cutter’s drunken quest for revenge feels like the ramblings of a madman. He is a self-proclaimed man of the people, angry at a world that steps over veterans like himself. As for Mo? Her pain is etched across her face. A small moment has her wordlessly watch children playing, while her husband drunkenly grizzles on. Once again, with such simple economy, the film fills the audience in on the character's state of mind more effectively with brief reaction shots over typical, obvious dialogue. 

These haunted characters allow Cutter’s Way to disarm a viewer. The murdered girl is almost insignificant. But then the person who talks about her murder the most is a war-torn vet who was never at the scene in the first place. The limping, one-armed man with an eye patch believes everyone else is blind to the facts. The most disturbing thing about Cutter’s Way is how it plays out a second time. At first, it’s watched through the eyes of Bridge’s Bone. Playing off like an offshoot of his character in The Last Picture Show (1971) or a precursor to his iconic role in The Big Lebowski (1998). He is our passive protagonist, guiding us past John Heard’s showy performance of Alex Cutter. Holding us a certain amount of distance away from Cutter’s charismatic mania. The second watch, however. It’s almost impossible to watch it through Cutter’s eye. Does his conspiracy theory make sense? Maybe not at the time, but his hostility certainly shapes things. The film pushes you more than a few steps towards his demented claims. Suddenly the coastal backdrop that felt unimportant to the drama in the forefront the first time around takes on a new sinister angle within a rewatch.

In Cutter’s Way and the equally tragic Born to Win (1971), director Ivan Passer incisively captures the cynicism many Americans seemingly held at the time of release. His outsider perspective gives the film its strength. A notable director of the Czech new wave of the 60s, people often knew him more for his lighter fare. However, two of his American films hold a remarkable toughness about themselves, a viewpoint which suited the downbeat cynicism laid bare by the era.  In Born to Win, Passer welds the circular bleakness of drug addiction in a way that keeps the film from feeling like an After-school special. Yet in Cutter’s Way, the filmmaker finds something even more haunting. A country so blighted by a war it lost and a lying president that rot has crept in. Eating away at the home-spun fantasy that many have happily bought into. Be it Bone’s commitment phobia or Cutter's deep-seated anger towards the establishment. These characters have been broken down by the promises that both America and each other failed to keep.  These frustrations are laid bare within this compact small-town story.

Such ennui allowed a sickening rot to set in. Corroding the happy home-spun fantasy brought into by many.  Bone hides early adultery with a beige capitalist alibi: selling a boat to a wealthy patron. During the Founders Day parade, Cutter wiles away time by making suggestive comments about the young girls in the procession. He does so in earshot of Mo. The moment has a touch of Virginia Woolf to it. Cutter makes a habit of making dubious comments disguised as vindictive jokes. Often grimly marking himself as a crippled cuck to get a rise out of his dispassionate associates. At one point Mo, who's grown sick of the trio's listless existence, buys fresh food as if such a superficial gesture would make an instant difference to their mindsets outside of a TV commercial. Eichhorn is so quietly moving through the narrative as the film's heart. Wait until halfway through when said heart bleeds. It's agonising.

By stripping away the exceptionalism found in so many American movies, Cutter's Way brings an honesty that America loves to shy away from.  It’s worth noting how the film is released only months before audiences fall in love with an adventurous historian who just so happens to masquerade as James Bond with a whip. Almost a decade before Cutter Way, audiences gained a deep-rooted connection with Clint Eastwood’s solitary, rule-breaking law enforcer, Dirty Harry (1971). Nowadays, the audience's embracement of the exceptional hero resides even longer with us. The era of franchises started and progressed with films such as Raiders of the Lost Ark, which had us look to the heavens for our heroes. It's fascinating to watch Passer ignore this. Instead, scratching beneath the surface to where others are reluctant to itch. Digging into a world lacking in heroes. Opening the door to a realm of indifference even before the gen-x cynicism of the 90s. The resentment these people harbour has infected all three of them deeply. It sticks to them. Refusing to let go. Causing their self-worth to weaken before spiralling outwards towards a country incubating their anger. The power of Cutter’s Way comes from how honest the dishonesty is. We watch the despondence of this trio of lost souls and realise how easy it could be for such a heinous murder to idly pass by.

The saddest thing about Cutter’s Way is that its muddled release holds a similar haplessness to the film's own characters. By the time it was released the numbing obsession with the superficial was complete. Audiences wouldn’t be invested in the crumbling visage of a once innocent America in the same way that anyone other than Cutter would be disinterested in a conspiratorial murder mystery. It’s not like cynical neo-noir is new. Yet a sense of brevity is found in Passer viewing America as the story's femme fatale. A nation far too unwieldy and rotten for its own good is now happy to delude itself with seductive yet self-centred idealism. It will placate the people with pageantry and parades. Blindly ignoring its victims. Our unfortunate trio are nothing more than the fall guys to the façade. In its own way, Cutter’s Way has deeper wounds than others. And the injuries are turning septic. Passer remarked in an interview with Jonathan Rosenbaum that the film is about what it takes to pull the trigger. The scary thing about Cutter’s Way as it fades to black is that even if people find the strength to pull the trigger, they may still be left in the dark. The film’s shocking yet ambiguous final moments rubber stamps this notion. For two hours, Cutter’s Way drags its viewer through the distorted mind of a veteran broken by war. By the end, Ivan Passer’s film considers how much we should believe him. The answer gets more disturbing the more you think about it.

Cutter's Way is out on Amazon Video at the time of writing. But try and find the limited edition Blu-ray by Radience Films if you can. 

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Friday 17 May 2024

Article: Indulging in The King of New York

The first time I heard the name Frank White was listening to The Notorious B.I.G.  Christopher Wallace vocally gave himself the moniker on many of his tracks. The name was taken from the fictional character portrayed by Christopher Walken in Abel Ferrara's kinetic crime drama The King of New York. To see rappers label themselves with the violent crime characters of the movies is no big shock, especially in the 90s. The earlier albums of Jay-Z were filled with skits which lifted movie dialogue from Carlitos Way (1993). The 1983 version of Scarface influenced the lyrics of several rap artists, while southern rapper Scarface made it his stage name. However, I always found Wallace using the Frank White nickname to be an amusing one. By extension, giving himself the name, the artist was labelling himself King of New York emcees. His reputation grew after his fatal shooting ended his far too short career. But the self-proclaimed nickname feels like such a wry and knowing aspect of mythmaking before the bleak tragedy of his passing.

The King of New York is equally as dark. Ferrara’s film feels just as doomed as B.I.G’s seminal hip-hop debut ‘Ready to Die’. Their main characters deal with death, drugs, and money in equal parts. All with the lingering knowledge that their ideals are in no way sustainable. Frank White is released from prison with the intent to go straight. He wants to be mayor of New York City. Taking a leaf out of Micheal Corleone’s book, he’s decided to decimate the criminal underworld and consolidate his drug empire while looking to frame himself as legitimate. New York’s narcotics squad quickly catch wind of White’s activities. Leading the case are three dogged yet weary detectives. However, with no tangible evidence against the kingpin, their efforts look in vain. However, if you’ve heard Biggie’s ‘Suicidal Thoughts’ you just know that tragic consequences loom around the corner.

It's crazy realising that The King of New York stuts its stuff in the same year that Goodfellas (1990) and The Godfather: Part 3 (1990) flexed their Mafioso muscles. While the two crime films of Coppola and Scorsese waltz around with an air of prestige about themselves. The King of New York is as down and dirty as they come. Eschewing the romanticism of the larger studio pictures and becoming its own Shakespearean tragedy set within the Big Apple. Frank White holds similar, lofty aspirations to that of Micheal Corleone. To run in the halls of government, even if it means getting there by nefarious means. But no Machiavellian scheme exists here. Both Coppola and Scorsese love to manoeuvre around the hierarchy of their gangsters with an element of pomp. Ferrara is less interested in pageantry. The King of New York, like many of Ferrara’s other films, is a lean beast. Like White, there’s no time to play around.

Frank White:” I’ve lost a lot of time. It's gone. From here on, I can't waste any. If I can have a year or two, I'll make somethin' good. I'll do somethin'...

[Chuckles] ... somethin' good. Just one year, that's all.”

In a 2012 interview on the Arrow region B Blu Ray of the film, a candid Abel Ferrara remarks that the film is how a volume of prosperity gained from a newly established nouveau riche (the drug dealers) was briefly viewed from the eyes of blue-collared joes, the cops trying to take White down. Amusingly, in the same interview, Ferrara considers White as a “dreamer”. A man full of contradictions with little time on this earth. The slenderness of The King of New York as a movie eerily in parallel with the rap star who made the film’s lead character his namesake a few years later. But the plight of Frank White and the metaphors viewed by his creator are also fascinating. A focus on the conflicting idealism that often occurs in similar gangster movies. They only need to be in “the life” for a little longer. The ill-gotten fruits of their violent crimes can then be obtained without consequence. White forgets that he lives in what Ferrara deems a "life of survival". Unfortunately, none of us get out here alive. In the case of Frank White, life is more likely to be a good time than a long one. With that one good year starts to look mighty precious. But as Frank notes in the film's latter end: he doesn’t need forever.

When director Quentin Tarantino first started following the work of Abel Ferrara, he felt that the Bronx native would become the next Martin Scorsese. An understandable notion from an aesthetic point of view. The King of New York has a few visual instances that suggest that earlier Scorsese vibe. The opening scenes of Frank White surveying New York in a stretch Limo after his release feel strangely reminiscent of Travis Bickle roaming the streets in Taxi Driver. The short, sharp, bloody first shootout resembles Scoresese's earlier works. A drug deal filled with tension explodes. Bodies are strewn across the floor in a matter of a few squib-filled seconds. But the two paths diverge from each other soon after.

One difference is Ferrara embracing the melting pot of New York. Despite the cynicism within The King of New York, Ferrara appears fascinated with dynamics not so keenly approached by his peers. In his review of The King of New York, Roger Ebert constantly looks for a logic that Ferrara cares little about. Frank White is a Caucasian criminal with an army of loyal black men under his wing. Ebert spends time wondering why. Wanting the script to tell us more. Yet we are left with an ambiguous commentary on race relations. Handled with a contradictory earnestness and community not found in earlier Scorsese features. White’s relationship with black street criminals is frowned upon in the film and questioned in film reviews.  However, the mixed racial groupings of both cops and criminals hold a dramatic contrast to the more dismissive or aggressive relationships found in the likes of Goodfellas and Taxi Driver. Granted those films are not about racial harmony. Nor is The King of New York. However, the dynamic found in Ferrara's film gives a fresh sense of precedence. Reflecting the audiences who would connect with the film. Despite a tepid box office performance, The King of New York did very well with black audiences. Suddenly The King of New York had me thinking of films such as Kanas City (1996), One False Move (1992) and, of course, the boom period of hood movies that graced the 1990s. The addition of music from Schooly D, one of the originators of Gangster Rap, not only cemented a sense of immediacy but also strengthened the ties to inner-city black America. A far cry from the misty-eyed, segregated period pieces of the same year. The idea of The King of New York being a racial trendsetter might be reaching for some. However, Ferrara’s desire to let such provocation linger for a viewer does make King of New York even more compelling. Bringing forth the overriding statement that the only colour that matters is green.

For all this talk about racial commentary, The King of New York is also a formidable exercise in style and mood. So much of the charisma of Frank White is compiled in how Abel Ferrara, Christopher Walken, and cinematographer Bojan Bazelli construct the world. From the first moments of White swaggering out of prison to the cold, pensive close-ups of him as he is driven through the underbelly of his desired kingdom.  Is Frank White cavalier on his idea to be New York’s Robin Hood? Of course, the imagery of Walken dancing with his stoned mistresses, bathed in golden diffused light, or gazing out at the New York skyline is seductive enough to gloss over the practicalities. It delivers the conviction. Bazelli’s work is of standout here. Capturing faces in mesmerising close-ups. The sense of power felt watching Walken in those early moments is palpable. In addition to this, Bazelli indulges scenes by bathing them in bold primary colours. So much so that I was reminded of another film: Deep Cover (1992). Guess who the cinematographer was. A quick glance at Bazelli’s filmography also features his potent work in features like The Ring (2002) and A Cure for Wellness (2016). Although one wonders how the cinematographer feels about revisiting Boxing Helena (1993).

But for all the style, it's astounding that The King of New York maintains an air of B-movie grit about itself. Ferrara combines lean, kinetic energy with the extravagant criminal indulgence found within sensationalistic second features and Blaxploitation fare. The King of New York never shies away from its thorny racial comradery nor its brazen sexuality and over-the-top violence. And it's all the better for it. Where else can you see such a scummy Laurance Fishburne performance? The type of off-the-chain display that could only exist in a film with one foot still in the exploitation world. How can a man with such calm, commanding roles like Furious Styles and Morpheus have a performance like this in his locker? Will mainstream cinema ever have such a charismatic anti-hero display his lustful desire with such wanton abandon on a subway train? Possibly not. But we should be lucky The King of New York exists as a jolt of lightning in a bottle, almost forgotten in a year where two of the New Hollywood champs came out with some big swings. Goodfellas became ranked as one of America’s best crime films. The Godfather: Part 3 became the uneven brother to its muscular siblings.  The King of New York stumbled out of the blocks but became the cult cousin that rewards viewers willing to give a little time to films that lay off the beaten track. When Biggie Smalls crowned himself as New York royalty, he saw the swagger and energy of Frank White that he wanted to replicate within his music. Both Frank Whites were here to excite, and each did so with aplomb. 

The King of New York can be found on Amazon Prime. However, I recommend picking up the great Arrow 2 Disc Blu-ray if possible. 

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Sunday 28 April 2024

Article - A quick look back at Interview with a Vampire

Neil Jordan’s film Interview with a Vampire has reached 30 years old this year. A discovery I made when I decided to watch my DVD copy to overcome the near-daily paralysis by film choice. Like so many of my peers, I have to forcibly stick with an immediate film choice or else be cursed to doomscroll for the rest of the evening. So camp, beautiful, depressed vampires abound! Interview with a Vampire is one of those films I always didn’t mind watching. However, narrative fragments fall out of my head despite multiple viewings. This time, I tried to reconcile my issues with a film I enjoyed most of despite holding it at arm's length.

Based on the 1976 Anne Rice novel of the same name, Interview with a Vampire tells the angsty story of Louis (Brad Pitt), a previously widowed slave owner who chronicles his centuries-long life as a creature of the undead. From his transformation by malicious vampire Lestat (Tom Cruise) to his parental relationship with Claudia (Kirsten Dunst), a young girl who has turned into a vampire through unfortunate circumstances.

Interview with A Vampire perhaps was infamously known for Anne Rice’s anger at Cruise being picked for the role of Lestat. Her anger quickly quelled after watching the performance by Cruise. A turn that is still considered as one of his most memorable. Lestat always felt like a landmark role for Cruise. It marks the first time the actor toyed with the role of anti-hero. But it’s also significant that while the homoeroticism of Top Gun was more of a byproduct than a necessity of that film, it is baked into Interview with a Vampire in a way that can't be ignored. Being the early 90s an element of brevity can be seen in one of Hollywood's notable golden boys playing a character who is so against type. In looking at Cruise’s filmography, his most alluring performances are when he decides to go against the grain. His roles that play against or challenge his more typical masculinity are almost always more interesting than when he embraces it. Give me Eyes Wide Shut (1999), Magnolia (1999), or this over the ongoing Mission Impossible movies he’s seemingly resigned to do. Cruise’s Lestat is one of the few times he unlocks the sociopathic side. It worked so well that Rice took out a two-page spread in Variety praising his performance and admitting she was wrong.

Cruise’s brash Lestat dampers Brad Pitt’s turn as Louis formidably. The contrast is palpable and possibly stems from Pitt’s depression when working on the film. The long dark days of a six-month stint in London had got to him so badly that he asked producer David Geffen how much it would cost to get out of the movie. The price? $40 million. Pitt’s passive Louis is a cypher, with none of the visual tics that the actor became known for. Interview with a Vampire trades in on his beauty, but none of the viral sexuality or energy that made him interesting in his earlier 90s films and beyond. It’s an overly mannered performance which comes off as flat and laboured. All the industry goes to Tom.

While an unevenness between the two leads exists, Interview is still an interesting artefact in that the homoeroticism still simmers under the lid. To see these now Hollywood heavyweights play out petty, catty arguments with each other like a middle-aged couple feels radical. As does the unconventional family unit between two male vampires and Claudia (a fantastically firey Kirsten Dunst), the child sired almost out of pity by Lestat. And we must remember Antonio Banderas, an Almodóvar fave, turning up in the latter stages. The film has more than a little queer credential. Allegedly Anne Rice’s fear of Hollywood’s homophobia was so great that at one point, she turned in a rewritten version of the film with a female Louis, with Cher in consideration for the role. By sticking to their guns Neil Jordan creates a far more engaging piece. It’s something you didn’t see a ton of in the 90s: a highly budgeted, queer horror film with Hollywood A-Listers. The only thing that comes close is perhaps one of Jordan’s influences on the film: Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula (1992) which came two years before it. Although Coppola’s film outdoes Interview for out and out horniness.

Were the dark, gothic Vampires the perfect creatures for the cynical 90s era? Interview with a Vampire and Dracula suggest this. Both films were not only large in scale, and rich in detail. They were also big on existential malaise and deep-seated longing. In Interview, this is perhaps best exhibited in the unfortunate character of Claudia. Growing older in mind, but never in physicality, Claudia is possibly the saddest string in Interview’s bow. Along with the idea that vampires must keep in touch with the world as it changes and evolves. A latter scene involving Lestat alludes to a feeling of immortal senility as it is shown that he has not kept up with the changing times of the world.

It's perhaps fitting that Interview with a Vampire also feels trapped in a cocoon of its era despite its then-progressive handling of sexuality. In the latter half of the decade, Bloodsuckers had somewhat shed the angst brought on by Coppola and Jordan. Instead, vampire films began to get their bite back. With films which seemed more in tune with the grubby grit of Kathryn Bigalow’s Near Dark (1987) or even Joel Schumacher’s The Lost Boys (1987).  People seemed less interested in seeing vampires as mopey sad bois on film. The latter section of the 90s gave us From Dusk Till Dawn (1996), Vampires (1998) and Blade (1998). Although the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series (1997) managed to keep brooding, gothic guys alive until Twilight (2009). That said, even creator Joss Wheadon had an innate desire to subvert elements of the gothic vampire tropes when looking back at his first attempt at the Buffy universe as a feature film.

The edgy vamps of the latter end of the decade illustrate one of Interview's weaknesses. After a while, these haunted sad sacks stop being engaging. Looking back at the film during this rewatch, I found the inner turmoil of Louis rather bland. Cruise’s Lestat, the driving force behind all the most entertaining aspects of the film, goes missing for most of the film's second half. While the film’s narrative dissipates once the action moves to Paris. The introduction of Antonio Banderas and Stephen Rea should be a boon for the story. Both actors put in decent turns. But the problem is that Louis remains uniquely unsympathetic throughout. It’s easy to feel like Lestat; infuriated with Louis's supposed “goodness” despite there being very little to him. One suspects the novel's success lies in how Rice rounds out the character. If any book fans stumble on this piece, let me know.

And it’s with this that I realised my issue with Interview with a Vampire. Despite the lavish detail and exciting, over-the-top performances from Cruise, Rea and Banderas, Louis is just a dull interviewee. Even with everything being told to an excited Christian Slater. In addition to the later stages' lack of narrative propulsion, Pitt's central performance highlights the trouble I now find with this gothic drama. But I can never be too harsh on it. Looking back on its release 30 years ago, what I also see is the kind of gateway drug to overblown, gothic horror that is always warmly welcomed by myself. Despite my issues with the material. Which is why I probably still own the DVD.    


Saturday 13 April 2024

Review: Eileen

Year: 2023

Director: William Oldroyd 

Screenplay: Luke Goebel, Ottessa Moshfegh

Starring: Thomasin McKenzie, Anne Hathaway

Synopsis is here:

Much to my annoyance, Eileen slipped out on to streaming release with little fanfare. I have been interested in watching the film since the trailer dropped last year (at the time of writing). Due to current circumstances, catching it at the cinema would be difficult, so I had hoped that there would be enough weight behind the film to ensure that I, the lapsed film writer, would be a little more alert to its home video release. Unfortunately, this was not the case. In a world of algorithms and data mining, my joyless doom scrolling still had not got the tech authorities to drill down and fully learn my film-loving tastes. Despite constant warnings about how big tech knows all about the pornography that you may or may not watch. However unless you spend a week and a day hunched over your phone feeding it all your interests, all your media apps still feel hapless in supplying you with decent new recommendations for normal movies. While I’m a tad factious here, the nagging feeling that decent film distribution has been almost disintegrated by fractured markets and tech disruption still scratches my forever itching shoulder. It still feels like finding a film like Eileen can be a somewhat needless struggle at times.

That said, if people were talking about Eileen, I may have been playing too much EA FC 24 to have noticed. There seemed to be a distinct quietness about the film despite the clout of the people making the film. Based on the 2015 novel by acclaimed writer Ottessa Moshfegh, Eileen the film is directed by William Oldroyd (Lady Macbeth) with rising star Thomasin McKenzie as the titular character, and Anne Hathaway is the film’s enigmatic femme fatale, Rebecca. Set in 60’s Massachusetts, the film tells the tale of the sheltered Eileen. Her work life is a mundane job at a juvenile correctional facility. While she is dominated by her alcoholic ex-cop dad at home. Things take a turn when Rebecca becomes the facility’s new psychologist. Eileen is quickly overcome with infatuation due to Rebecca’s intelligence and glamour. The relationship begins to sour when an invite is offered, a favour is asked, and Eileen’s life is turned upside down over the Christmas holidays.

It's not surprising that director William Oldroyd is connected to this material. His debut feature Lady Macbeth (2016) harbours similar themes, in which the repression of a young woman leads to chaotic and tragic circumstances. There’s a clear connection with writer Moshfegh, who also co-writes the screenplay of her debut novel. Her work has been noted for its misanthropic and complicated anti-heroines, and this is where Eileen thrives. Particularly in the film’s first half, while the film quietly puts its pieces into play. Despite being a period piece, the film feels very in tune with the current state of modern female literature that Moshfegh operates in. The film works best when it encapsulates how smothered women can be by patriarchal societal norms. The film’s small-town setting helps make this feel particularly potent. From the onset, it’s obvious that the sexually ambivalent Eileen doesn’t fit in the narrow margins of this one-bar Massachusetts town. Once Rebecca’s well-educated, big-town presence enters the fray, the changing attitudes of the 60s appear to come with her. 

Eileen starts to run into problems once the film’s thriller elements come into play. A major incident occurs, but it feels like such a curveball that only the people truly invested in the main relationship may maintain a connection with the narrative. Suddenly it feels like the film’s final third needed extra minutes from the earlier sections of the movie. Elieen’s sideswipe of a third act feels awkwardly abrupt in a way that Moshfegh’s novel probably isn’t. In addition to this, there is a crucial change at the film's climax that feels disingenuous. Although credit must be given to the filmmakers for giving us a female relationship in which both characters are difficult to truly like. 

The biggest takeaway from the film is the two magnetic performances from the film's leads.  Thomasin McKenzie’s Eileen is perfectly mousey yet harbours an unknowable quantity about her which keeps her at arm’s length. In the end, you realise it’s for a good reason. Anne Hathaway excels as Rebecca. A woman whose confidence makes her equally as hard to pin down as Eileen. It’s films like Eileen which help highlight just how good certain actors can be. Hathaway doesn’t overact or chew scenery. She merely holds the audience’s gaze with an intense charm. She manages to be attractive and sexy, with no need to be explicit or obvious. The most arresting moment of her performance is when we realise that the confidence Rebecca previously had suddenly been misplaced, and she is just as fearful as Eileen is. 

Oldroyd wraps these two performances up in an atmospheric film that loses its way before the final credits. While aiming for a tonal shift that feels very difficult to ring true, Eileen still establishes itself as a film which creeps around the interiors of its complicated women well enough to stay interesting. That said, while I'm not completely sold on everything that Eileen was delivering, that's still no justification for streaming services harvesting my data poorly and almost hiding the film's release from me. I feel you have to do better, guys.

Saturday 17 February 2024

Article – A Little Ramble about George Armitage's Cult Killers – Miami Blues

I like directors when they’re allowed to be weird little guys. When their odd visions are allowed to flourish on the screen. I rewatched George Armitage’s Grosse Point Blank (1997) for a podcast and took so much more from it than past viewings. This is most likely down to age. Its effective pop needle drops, offbeat charm, and crafted cynicism towards encroaching adulthood in the ever-ironic 90s certainly made a mark this time. I do feel the film would be a tougher sell to the IP junky executives of today.

Grosse Point Blank was a minor hit for director George Armitage, who struck out the last time he tried to put together an off-kilter tale about a violent sociopath. Miami Blues, released in 1990, is a bold and bizarre crime comedy that throws Alec Baldwin, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Fred Ward into a blender before adding tonal shifts to the mix and switching everything up to full blitz.

Fredrick (Baldwin) is a violent ex-con who flies to Miami after being released from prison in California. After unintentionally killing a Hari Krishna member, he checks into a hotel and arranges an encounter with a call girl. Said sex worker is Susie Waggoner (Leigh), whose sweetness is only overshadowed by her naivety. What starts off as a typical sexual transaction swiftly becomes an unlikely coupling. Susie’s dreams of living happily ever after soon cloud over Fredrick’s sociopathic tendencies. Meanwhile, a dim-witted cop named Hoke Moseley (Ward) finds his investigation of the murdered Krishna disciple leads towards the unconventional couple. Chaos soon ensues when Fred manages to steal Moseley’s badge and gun.

Grosse Point Blank would be a hard sell today. I believe Miami Blues would be borderline impossible now. This is a world of violent, insensitive characters set against a Miami backdrop far from what you’d see in a more populist production. Frederick’s cynicism and selfishness make Susie’s blind interest in him feel questionable. While Moseley is unheroic and callous and seemingly over the hill. All three characters are unmistakably unlikable.

But Miami Blues does a remarkable job of mining the humanism out of these people that would have been lost in a different movie. Then again, when Jonathan Demme, a fellow Corman colleague, shows up producer credit, it suddenly makes a lot of sense. Halfway through the film, Fredrick and Susie move to a house in the suburbs. For Fredrick, it's a good cover for him to hide out. As Susie wanders from the front garden into the house, the camera slowly captures the mundane environment. For Susie, the two sharing the home stirs an assorted range of emotions. An idyllic, yet idealistic view of suburban life.

In a film that indulges in images and situations of mirroring, facades and imitation, moments of introspection suddenly jump out at Fredrick unexpectedly. By stealing Moseley’s credentials, Fredrick has no trouble committing more robberies. However, the theft also allows him to play the hero. Something that he gains a taste for. His selfishness plays a huge part in his enjoyment. But a modicum of curiosity also sets in. Blink and you possibly miss Fredrick considering this the successful conclusion he cynically jokes to Susie over.

Miami Blues becomes a strangely engaging artefact to observe. The humour is dark in a way that many modern films would try to avoid. Fredrick causing the death of a Hari Krisha by merely breaking his hand is the sort of absurd, cartoony gag that some people may feel bad laughing at. And that’s understandable. The same goes for when Fredrick witnesses a restaurant robbery and shoots the thief first before asking him to stop. A macabre goofiness runs through the film that may only appeal to a niche crowd. Yet Miami Blues dovetails with its Armitage’s own Gross Point Blank by humanising its strange characters in unexpected ways. Like Martin Blank in Grosse Point Blank, Fredrick is an antisocial square who doesn’t fit into society's round hole. His pessimistic viewpoint bubbles to the surface more than once in exchanges with Susie. In one scene, he cruelly mocks Susie’s desire to open a franchise restaurant. He has little understanding of her small, mundane dreams. Yet by exclaiming that they should “skip straight to the happily ever after” it suggests that he sees a future with the two of them together. Most likely a criminal one. However, in the short timeframe of knowing each other, Fred really seems to dig all the meals Susie cooks for him. Maybe he could tune into the frequency of domestic life. This aspect serves to be part of the core of Gross Point Blank’s appeal. Something Armitage enjoys. Mining humour out of at the start and end of the 90s.

Miami Blues is worth digging into if only to be reminded of a time when American genre films were happy to be so off-centre. Armitage refined his concept later in the 90s. Ensuring John Cusack strolled the echelon of cult classic cool. But it’s fascinating to see him show his workings here. Miami’s Blue’s pastel-toned world is dark and strange. It’s a little bit weird. But hopefully, viewers will take a look back and enjoy when filmmakers were allowed to indulge in their odd little visions.

Monday 29 January 2024

Article: The Desire and the Danger - A First Watch of Looking for Mr Goodbar

When I decided to write this, the film people of the internet had rolled into day three of complaining about Sight and Sound’s 100 Greatest Movie List. Instead of participating, I decided to get blown away by Diane Keaton in Looking for Mr Goodbar. A film that’s still M.I.A in terms of physical release. Not due to the subject matter, which is tough, but due to music distribution rights. The soundtrack features disco hits from the likes of Donna Summer and Thelma Houston. The upbeat tracks date the film historically, while the lyrics also foreshadow its troubling ending. Songs like Don’t Leave Me This Way flip from being well-known floor fillers into something deeply chilling. Looking for Mr Goodbar is not an easy watch. Not in the slightest. Yet the themes raised still hold a strong relevance, while the provocative nature of the film makes it difficult to forget.

Based on a bestselling book of the same name, Goodbar is a fictional account of a real-life tragedy of Roseann Quinn, A well-liked teacher who had led a double life in her spare time. Richard Brook's matter-of-fact feature is unlike modern true-crime entries. With so many current examples enjoying placing fetishist attention placed on the murderers of senseless violence, however, one could wonder if the film's availability on streaming has been able to grab the attention of true crime junkies who know of the original case but are new to the film.

In Looking for Mr Goodbar, Diane Keaton plays Thresa, a trainee teacher whose home life is suffocating by her domineering polish-catholic parents. She studies to be a teacher while her hot mess of a sister has escaped the family home and has delved into the dual pleasures of drugs and polygamy. Theresa, at first, finds herself sexually involved with her college professor. However, the relationship is cut short before her graduation. Thresa soon obtains a job as a teacher for deaf children and proves herself to be a thoughtful and nurturing guide for her students. Her work life is a marked difference from her spare time, however, as she finds herself frequenting dive bars, engaging in one-night stands and experimenting with drugs. She soon finds herself at the hands of manipulating and self-centred men. Soon, her nightlife slowly seeps into her day job. A feeling of risk begins to stem from her precarious behaviour. Tragedy strikes when Teresa while reconsidering her personal life, has a chance encounter that changes her fate for the worse.

Looking for Mr Goodbar has no surprising plot. Theresa's story may have viewers entering the film with an understanding of the tragic crime and controversial source novel. Despite this knowledge, Looking for Mr Goodbar remains a startling picture. Even though the film is over 40 years old, the film still holds a potent relevancy as the harrowing narrative will feel relatable to many women. Although the story sets itself against the backdrop of the women's revolution of the 70s, there's a feeling the modern world has moved as much as expected. While parts of the urban scene may have faded, the misogyny found within Goodbar feels no different from today. The opening photo montage, littered with glassy-eyed men ogling young women in bars, only needs an outfit change and a gloss of paint to feel pertinent to where we are now. Something about the aged, unchanging grimness and the sense of foreboding helps Looking for Mr Goodbar remain shocking.

Goodbar’s lack of substantial physical release gives the film an added mystique. Its subject matter and lack of typical availability only compound its notoriety. Critics who have sought the movie out remain just as divisive as the likes of Vincent Canby were back in the 70s. Reviews have been quick to claim the film muddles its execution. Claire Davidson is cold towards the film. In a piece focusing on the film's soundtrack for Little White Lies, she dismisses Goodbar as redundant. Despite praising the film, Jim Owen of We Are Cult questions the struggle for Goodbar to define itself. The film's release in 1977 has the powerful lead performance by Diane Keaton overshadowed by her more affectionate display in Annie Hall. It is a curious displacement, when in contrast to the sexual allegations that dogged Hall's director Woody Allen in his later years. A strange, tangential connection of abuse lies between the two films. Along with the limited availability of the film and the critical discourse, this mixture of elements almost keeps the tenacious display of Keaton overlooked.

One thing that does not get overlooked in Looking for Mr Goodbar is the stacked before-they-were-famous cast. The film is bursting with burgeoning talent from all corners. As previously mentioned, Diane Keaton is completely arresting as Theresa. She flitters easily between sweet and sensual in a display that is intelligent, sexual, and yet without judgment throughout the narrative. Meanwhile, the supporting cast is a heady brew of then up-and-coming performers. Richard Gere appears as the finger-drumming narcissist Tony. While his appearances are brief, he hums with dangerous sexual energy when on screen. Gere delivers a similar vibrancy in American Gigolo (1980) and Breathless (1983). And it's upsetting that a generation of filmgoers may only know him as the corporate silver fox who chased Julia Roberts around in Pretty Woman (1990), if at all. William Atherton, known more for his smug, cinema bastard roles in Ghostbusters (1984) and Die Hard (1988), finds realms of darkness as James, a Welfare Caseworker. A hapless Irish American man who makes nice with Theresa's Polish Catholic parents but soon becomes unhinged as his traditional desires infringe on her sexual freedom. LeVar Burton shows up as the tough older brother of one of the pupils Theresa teaches. His stoic, no-nonsense demeanour is light years from his role as Geordi in Star Trek. Tom Berenger appears late on as the homophobic final partner of Theresa. He is equally as unbalanced as those who came before him while still presenting a different sexual danger to Richard Gere’s Tony. 

An element of the film’s potency is that despite its cast of soon-to-be well-knowns when it stays focused on Theresa rather than the many men, the film shines. Many modern true crime stories have keenly leaned towards the suspects and killers. With fans posting online their unwholesome desires for these unstable criminals. The likes of Dahmer - Monster: The Jeffery Dahmer Story have had its admirers frame Evan Peter’s portrayal of the serial killer as a pin-up. A persuasive takeaway from Goodbar is that it maintains the dubious men within the narrative as pathetic while trying to maintain an amount of sympathy for Theresa. She may enjoy an element of manufactured risk in her exploits, but her liberation and sexual freedom shouldn't cost her life.

It is easy to find parts of Goodbar reductive. At times, the film stumbles on the central theme that such a woman with her sexual freedom should not have her wings clipped. Richard Brook's stagey direction of the material sometimes struggles to do enough to complicate the matter for the better. A viewing of the film could have it read as a moralist tract, with the film arriving just before the even more conservative sex = death slashers of the 80s. A meandering side plot involving Theresa's sister Katherine begins to drift halfway through the movie. At first, she is more sexually adventurous, yet soon Katherine looks towards Theresa as an emotional anchor and is unaware of her sister's antics. By the time we enter the final third, Katherine’s exploits have led to abortions and quickie divorces. She’s suddenly moving towards societal norms, an obvious contrast to Theresa, who only has second thoughts about her promiscuity when tragically too late.

However, something about Looking for Mr Goodbar remains compelling. There is something so illuminating about Keaton’s performance that ensures the film, while overlong, isn’t lazy in what it’s trying to say.

One can throw criticism at the frayed edges of the film, yet this only pinpoints the great tragedy that hangs in the narrative. Looking for Mr Goodbar manages to highlight a multitude of struggles from intergenerational, racial and gender standpoints. The film sets up various conflicts in which characters within them will never gain the chance to move on or gain strength due to a fateful act which ends things. The film doesn’t pin down everything easily. Begging the question: If Goodbar had tightened its loose ends, could it be as compelling? Possibly not.

True Crime fiction often asks how we can load ourselves with the knowledge to calm our anxieties while protecting ourselves so that the same fate of victims is not shared. Looking for Mr Goodbar is startling because slight stumbles aside, there is no easy, comforting answer to Theresa's journey.  She battles her stifling family unit against a backdrop of women's liberation, defining her independence by her standards. There is a sense that Theresa would struggle to find this liberty through traditional societal norms. Theresa does not look for a man who fits the requirements of her father, but her sexual exploration, while enjoyable at times, does not fulfil her either. If she were to follow her sister down the well-trodden path, this also betray her newfound freedom. A streak of self-destruction lies in Theresa's behaviour, but her decisions are not what set about her demise. It is the tragic swinging pendulum of fate. Theresa's fierce independence makes her a character to root for. It also makes her unknowable. And the chilling final moments, utilising a strobe effect, are disorientating. Leaving us in the knowledge that despite being a rock for her sister, championing the young, disadvantaged inner-city children she teaches, or her fight for her sexual freedom, we will never know what she was striving for and that her ending is even more wrongfully unjust.

Looking for Mr Goodbar’s poignancy still hits hard because society doesn’t feel like it’s moved on from its talking points, despite Looking for Mr Goodbar approaching 45 years old. The disco-glazed city may not appear as dangerous as they do in this film. The dive bars that populate Goodbar would be hard to find now. Yet the fragile men who inhabit the dark corners still move among us. The type of man who can only exhibit control over independent, young women in aggressive, manipulative, or cowardly ways. Be it a gutless teacher who carries on an affair to feed his desires, a condescending potential suitor with a dated, traditional vision of relationships, or even a homophobic murderer who takes misinterpretation as a mocking dig at his own sexually. You can find these characters easily in movies today. While certain films have attempted to capture the anger and sadness within Looking for Mr Goodbar, they don’t hold a similar impact. The non-judgemental viewpoint sometimes exhibited by the lead character almost feels alien in the realm of girlboss representation that exists now. Whether Looking for Mr Goodbar will ever gain a solid physical re-issue in the UK or America, now that streaming dominates, remains to be seen. But while it finds itself on streaming channels with no sign of disappearing currently, that alone sends the message that it deserves to be discovered by a new audience and evaluated.

Looking for Mr Goodbar is currently on Paramount Plus and Amazon Prime at the time of writing.

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Wednesday 3 January 2024

Article: Ugly Enlightenment - A Quick Look Back at Happiness

January is often the month of reinvention. A month for folk to assess their unpleasant habits. With many looking towards ways of revitalising themselves for the future ahead of them. Be it career, relationships or health, January is the time for people to search introspectively about their past and present choices before looking forward to a new enlightened path of self-improvement. 

Todd Solondz is the kind of guy who scoffs at self-improvement.   

The shocking thing about Solondz’s 1998 feature Happiness is how unsettling it still is to this day. Watching the film in the era of social media only seems to highlight how much Solondz gets away with. Please note I am not mentioning too much of what happens in the film. You must see it to believe it. The film’s ironic and cynical jabs at suburbia could draw a concentrated amount of outrage. To those whom some would consider “over-sensitive.” In his four-star review of the film, Roger Ebert notes that it is “not a film for most people.” He hits the nail squarely on the head. 

Solondz’s dark satire is a medley of interlocking stories involving three sisters and the immediate connections surrounding them. The film’s painful cold open is a superb litmus test for first-time viewers. The overly sensitive Joy (Jane Adams) decides to break things off with Andy (Jon Lovitz) while on a date with him to avoid complicating things. The exchange that occurs is what the younger generations would now call cringe and suggests why ghosting is now so popular among the single. If a viewer can stand to watch this conversation without wincing, then the viewer may be in good stead for the next two hours.   

Happiness is uncompromising indie cinema that is tremendously comfortable when the viewer is uneasy. Revelling in hostility like a pig in shit Happiness is a grimly comic look at suburbia that landed a year before American Beauty (1999) but holds a cuttingness that lingers past the latter film’s pomposity. Solondz mines empathy out of the repulsive, finding an affinity for those who embrace the appalling. The women are shallow, while the men are pathetic. And this is before you realise that Happiness runs the gauntlet of the dark and upsetting. From obscene phone calls to full-blown paedophilia, the film challenges the viewer with the ability to dig out twigs of compassion from the unspeakable.   

What makes Solondz’s movie so compelling is how it states that even the perverse may be seeking contentment. He finds the darkest humour in the absurdities and constrictions which inhabit his misanthropic characters. Rewatching Happiness was invigorating. Particularly in our current climate of self-described wellness gurus and influencers shilling false promises and dubious misinformation via their social media feeds and channels. So much time they spend dropping life lessons as if they have found the key to enlightenment. One wonders what a few of the most obnoxious types would make of a film like this. Genuine hostility? Maybe. And that is what makes Happiness funny.