Mississippi Grind 2015 ****

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Ryan Reynolds has put his snark to good use as Deadpool; it’s a little frustrating that he’s using the same mannerisms for everything from Detective Pikachu to Fast and Furious, because he can play straight just as well. Similarly, Ben Mendelsohn is a terrific actor who has been typecast as a baddie in Ready Player One, Rogue One and Robin Hood; both of them need to be a bit more creatively cast. Writers and director Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck provide proof of concept that both men have the chops to do great work with Mississippi Grind, a downbeat but hugely impressive character study of who men under the narcotic grip of gambling. Gerry (Mendelsohn) is a poker player who imagines that hanging out with the younger, better-looking Curtis (Reynolds) might change his luck; he’s right in a way, but not the way he imagines. Both men are weak; a key dialogue scene hinges on their willingness to place a bet on something as random as the appearance of the next person to walk into a room. Robert Altman’s California Split was an inspiration, but Mississippi Grind has an energy and a loucheness all of its own; if you’ve only seen these actors paying the rent in blockbusters, it’s something of a revelation to see what they can do in a small-scale drama like this.

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The Lair of the White Worm 1988 ***

The decline and fall of Ken Russell would make a film in itself; once the enfant terrible of British cinema, he ended up making films in his nursing home. The Lair of the White Worm is a very strange late entry from the end of his peak; the 80’s saw him venture across the pond of the excellent Altered States and the oddball Crimes of Passion; returning to Blighty saw him head back to the literary path with Frankenstein creation story Gothic and this adaptation of Bram Stoker’s The Lair of the White Worm. Both film have enough baroque imagery to qualify as horror films, although the sight of Peter Capaldi pacifying the giant worm with his bagpipes is likely to create sleepless nights with mirth. Capaldi’s Angus Flint is one of a ground of excavators who come across a giant skull on an archaeological dig; could the mysterious Lady Sylvia Marsh (Amanda Donohoe), who seduces boy scouts in her spare time, know anything about the giant worm it suggests? And does Lord James D’Ampton (Hugh Grant) realise that his family have a history of slaying giant beasts? Russell’s use of chroma-key effects to create weird hallucinogenic montages of Bacchanalian tableau is hit or miss, but the cast all seem game for a ludicrous adventure that’s part Dr Who, part Nigel Kneale, and mainly Ken Russell, having fun with the production design by finding worms, snakes and all kinds of visual motifs for his story. The Lair of the White Worm was less than popular on release, but it’s gained a deserved cult following; the star names involved should draw a crowd to streaming services, and even if they don’t want to remember this film, it’s use of classic British mythology gives it a unique, decadent tone.

True Romance 1992 *****

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The late Tony Scott was something of a cinematic powerhouse, whose work was consistently underrated; a note on his Wikipedia page says that after The Hunger, he stopped reading the vitriolic reviews his film inspired. Most of these critics are long gone now, but Scott’s canon endures; hits like Top Gun, Crimson Tide and Enemy of the State are all better than average blockbusters, but his other works are remarkable in their consistency; Revenge, The Last Boy Scout, Man on Fire or Unstoppable would be highlights in any director’s resume, whether they appeased the public or not. His best film was a flop; 1992’s True Romance gave Scott a super-hot script, and he did it proud; Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette are ideal as Clarence and Alabama, young newly-weds who scram from snowy Detroit to sunny LA after he romantically murders her pimp Drexl (Gary Oldman under dreadlocks and prosthetics). All kinds of talent are shown to their best advantage here, from Bronson Pinochet’s coke-addled flunky to Brad Pitt’s avuncular stoner Floyd via James Gandolfini’s memorable thug. Scott creates the requisite tension, but also creates two vibrant, dynamic worlds for his characters to inhabit. And at the centre is one of cinema’s greatest scenes; a confrontation between Clarence’s cop father Clifford (Dennis Hopper) and mobster Cocotti (Christopher Walken). Two experienced actors with some great dialogue; Scott gets the best out of them as Cocotti’s threats raise Clifford’s awareness of his predicament. From the moment Clifford accepts his last cigarette, the dynamics of the scene change and it becomes a meditation on defiance in the face of death. Ridley Scott has given interviews regarding the family history of cancer which throw some light on his brother’s suicide; Scott’s elegiac handling of True Romance’s highpoint throws further illumination. Unfairly derided as a man who placed style over content, Tony Scott was in the deep end while most directors were just splashing in the shallows.

Sextette 1978 ***

Someone, somewhere at Amazon Prime, with over a century of cinematic history to choose from, is coming up with Sextette as their new release on their streaming service. With Disney, Apple and Warners all launching their own platforms, it’s pretty odd that this legendary 1978 clunker should be the plastic jewel in Amazon’s Fall 2019 line-up. Sextette had been a stage vehicle for Mae West from 1961, and it’s clear that the most, or only remarkable thing about it was the star. A film version was announced in 1970, but by the time it got in front of the camera in 1978, West was in her eighties and somewhat less that the sin-sational broad promised on the posters. West certainly had presence, but she moves like a parking hovercraft and delivers her lines as if she’s never formed a sentence before, a phenomena that has inspired a number of urban legends. But there’s many a film in which an aged male actor froths over young women, so Sextette’s notion of having West meet six of her previous young husbands while staying at a London hotel isn’t necessarily awful. But Sextette is awful, and the contents read like a crime sheet. How about Mae West and Timothy Dalton performing Love Will Keep Us Together? Or West directing a flirtatious performance of Happy Birthday Sweet Twenty-One to the entire US Athletics team? Tony Curtis as a diplomat called Sexy Alexi? How about random cameos from Dom Deluise, Ringo Starr, Walter Pigeon, Keith Moon, Alice Cooper and George Raft? Perhaps to compensate for the star’s immobility, all concerned give inhibited performances that must now be the subject of some regret. Hughes’s shambolic film switches gears with ease, balancing casual racism with tremendous homophobia while the cast pick their way through such mind-numbing innuendos as ‘Have you seen Big Ben? / I hardly know the man!’ Sextette is a car-crash of a film that has to be seen to be believed, filmed in a process which should be called Awful-o-Vision which makes everything look like its filmed through a screen door. After ninety minutes, you’ll feel like you’ve been trapped in Mae West’s boudoir with an assortment of 70’s glitterati; not pleasant, but an experience that you’ll never forget. Like the Mae-Goes-Disco version of Baby Face that climaxes the film, it burns it way into your consciousness, leaving you changed inside forever.

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote 2018 ****

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99 cents is the humble rental price for Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, a film so long awaited that other films have been made about how long it was taking; Lost In La Mancha details an earlier flurry of activity that failed to get Cervantes famous story onto the big screen. It has not been lost on Gilliam that spending thirty years attempting to tell the story of a man who famously titled at windmills has a poignancy all of its own, so finally watching The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is a strange experience; it’s initially hard to separate the film’s making from the story. The vibe is very 1989 in terms of a magic–realist narrative; An advertising executive Tony Grisoni (Adam Driver) slips back in time and finds himself in the company of the legend Don Quixote (Jonathan Pryce). Rewrites have allowed Gilliam to embrace the meta elements here; while shooting a commercial featuring the character of Don Quixote, Grisoni unearths his own student film on the same subject, and sets out to visit the locations, only to find the actor he cast is now living as the character. The production difficulties, which were not surprisingly many and diverse, have been detailed elsewhere; what’s on screen may not have the full sweep and scope of what the director imagined, but it looks pretty good, and evokes exactly the right spirit for a modern Cervantes adaptation. What Gilliam has not compromised is that The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is a text that the audience can get lost in, alongside the main character, over a 132 minute running time, and it’s almost certain that the same overwhelming effect would be what was intended when production started in 1989. Driver does well with a tricky role, Pryce is imperious as Quixote, and the episodic narrative blends scenes from the original text with some nice commentary. Trickling out unannounced on home streaming services may not be what Gilliam dreamed of, but fans of Gilliam, Monty Python and Cervantes will want to buy this one for a dollar or more; it’s a magical mystery tour mixing past and present, fact and fiction, film and literature, and the pleasurable experience of watching it snatches a secret success from the jaws of well-publicised failure.

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B07QNM5C4F?camp=1789&creativeASIN=B07QNM5C4F&ie=UTF8&linkCode=xm2&tag=justwatch09-20

The Unbelievable Truth 1989 ***

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Hal Hartley is an American auteur whose best work deserves better than being dropped into a dusty oubliette. Before the highs of Amateur and Henry Fool, his debut The Unbelievable Truth features a simple story, careful performances, a delicate air of comedy and drama, and a number of other elements rarely seen in US indie cinema until the rise of mumblecore. Audry (Adrienne Shelly) lives in a small town, and she’s just broken up with her boyfriend. Josh (Robert John Burke) arrives with charm to burn, but also a dubious reputation; he’s just out of jail, and various whispers suggest he not only killed his girlfriend, but her father too. The truth, of course, is rather more believable than that, but Hartley’s film neatly dovetails the stripping away of the lies about Josh with Audry’s modelling career, which seems to involve fewer clothes with each gig. Popping up on Amazon streaming services might bring Hartley’s offbeat approach to a new audience; his use of space and silence is somewhat refreshing in today’s post MTV world, and The Unbelievable Truth shows the strength of the US indie scene before the Tarantinos and Soderberghs arrive to shake things up.

The Key 1983 ***

the_key_1983___595cbd51a3d36.mp4Thrill-seekers need not apply to Tinto Brass’s adaptation of Junichiro Tanizaki’s novel Kagi, which he’s revised in terms of setting and time. The place is Venice, and the time is the rise of Fascism in Italy under Il Duce; as always with Brass, the text is very much directed towards lust, but it’s remarkable how little sex there is in The Key. Frank Finlay plays older man Nino who has lost the spark of his relationship with Theresa (Stefania Sandrelli), but writing their desires in a locked diary offers a route towards fulfilment, or possibly towards death. With an Ennio Morricone score, production values are high, and Finlay gives a game performance. The Key probably doesn’t offer enough flesh to satisfy, but it’s remarkably cerebral for a story intended to get the pulses racing, and the ending is remarkably bleak. With Nico photographing his wife while asleep, then asking a friend to develop them, there’s some kind of consideration of the function of the voyeur here, and the political trappings suggest that Brass is aiming for a Last Tango In Paris/The Night Porter level of rigour. The Key has been largely forgotten since it appeared in 1983; a fresh looking print on Amazon may well frustrate those expecting the lewdness of Brass’s later work, but there’s something more sophisticated than might be expected here. This 2019 version also appears to be cut; understandable in 1983, less comprehensible now; anyone who clicks on a Tinto Brass film surely deserves all they get.