The Tingler 1959 ***

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William Castle is a somewhat neglected figure, perhaps because he staked his reputation on novelties, some would say gimmicks, which were dated from the moment they appeared. Such felicities as having a skeleton appear above a cinema screen seem rather old fashioned in the shadow of IMAX 4DX. So it’s rather nice to see The Tingler appear on Amazon Prime is a natty new print that makes it ripe for rediscovery.

What’s surprising here, given Castle’s reputation, is the ingenious nature of the whole conceit. The Tingler is a horror film, but one that operates in a specific and rather post-modern way. Vincent Price plays Warren Chapin, a scientist who has been working to isolate the Tingler, a creature that feeds on fear; it appears inside the human body, often at the instant of death, and Chapin is keen to isolate it. Many boffins might have been tempted to use illegal means to pursue this goal, but fortunately LSD was legal in the US at the time, and The Tingler features the spectacle of Price and other cast-members cheerfully blowing their own minds and (pretending to) trip on acid.

This in itself is odd enough, but things get weirder when Chapin meets a woman who is a deaf mute and is unable to express herself; she’s got a lifetime of fear bottled up inside her and is ready to blow like a bottle of champagne, releasing a mega-tingler. Her husband owns a silent-movie theatre which appears to be showing 1921’s Tol’able David in a permanent loop, and when The Tingler escapes, it escapes into the theatre and begins tingling the occupants of the seats.

This leads to a quite wonderful sequence in which you, the viewer, find yourself watching the same silent movie, with Vincent Price on the soundtrack warning you about dangerous creatures on the loose and potentially assaulting your backside. It places the audience in the movie in an absurd and yet ingenuous way; there’s also a brilliant scare involving a splash of blood-red in an otherwise black and white movie. With a frank view of drugs, plus some meta-narrative twists, The Tinger is a great way to waste 80 minutes, and shows that 1959’s cinema showmen had plenty of ingenuity as the on-going battle with tv hotted up.

Flashback 1990 ****

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“Wait till you see the 90’s, they’re going to make the 70’s look like the 50’s!’ says hippie Huey Walker (Dennis Hopper) in Flashback, a comedy-thriller that’s refreshing in the way it puts politics centre-stage. Walker is an Abbie Hoffman-style prankster who has been missing since he decoupled Spiro Agnew’s train as an anti-war protest; when he resurfaces in 1990, he anticipates that social norms about to get a lot stricter, and in hindsight, he was right.

Walker has a strong piece of evidence in his nemesis, FBI agent John Buckner, played by Kiefer Sutherland. Buckner wears a suit, carries a gun, and couldn’t be further from the ideals Walker espouses; ‘I wanted to be the opposite of what my parents wanted’ Bucker explains, and he’s delivered on that promise. Buckner is deputised to take Walker on a long cross-country journey by train in order to stand trial, but his captive escapes, and the two men end up going on the run together as dark forces close in on Huey.

Flashback was directed by Franco Amurri, who directed the original version of Big, and there’s a body swap element here too, even if it’s played without the magic. Walker convinces Buckner than he’s spiked his drink with acid, gets him drunk, then steals his gun and clothes; clean shaven, he becomes a fun-house mirror-image of himself, with the exact opposite in political ideals. Walker is also able to put Buckner back in contact with his own idealistic youth, via an ex girlfriend Maggie (Carol Kane) who still carries a torch for Walker and the flower-power movement. While both men seem entrenched in their own political views, they manage to reverse their instant judgements of each other and form some kind of alliance.

The plotting gets a little murky in the final act of Flashback, with the chase elements overwhelming the sharper observations of the script, although the climax is pretty sharp. Hopper, discussing the impact of Easy Rider, makes a number of post-modern jokes about his own reputation, with Born to Be Wild part of the eclectic soundtrack choices. The perennially underrated Sutherland does a great job of suggesting the spectrum of opinions possible within one man; the scene where Buckner cries to see his childhood self in a home movie is brilliantly played.

It would be untrue to suggest Flachback has a bad reputation; it’s got no reputation at all, and surfaces on Amazon Prime like a Flashback to when a populist American film might seek to create political unity. It’s no masterpiece, but it’s a good –humoured and knowing film that might just find a few new converts with a fresh new print and two great stars to pull them in.

A Good Woman is Hard to Find *** 2019

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There’s a trope in thrillers that should really have been retired, in which an inexperienced, physically weak person somehow triumphs against one, two or possibly three professional criminals. Even the likes of Quentin Tarantino, usually keen to turn a cliché inside out, isn’t averse to this unlikely scenario in films like True Romance. Maybe there’s a place for this kind of nonsense in a lightweight Jackie Chan action comedy, but it’s increasingly problematic when a film is deadly serious in intent, and it’s a frustrating flaw in Abnor Pastoll’s otherwise accomplished A Good Woman is Hard to Find.

Sarah Bolger is the big draw here, giving a big, empathetic performance as Sarah, a mother of two whose life in a Belfast housing estate has already been disrupted before the story begins; her husband has been killed, their son is rendered mute, and Sarah has a full time job just holding her family together. Callous criminal Tito (Andrew Simpson) bursts into her life when he attempts to hole up in her family home, complete with a package of drugs. But when one of Sarah’s kids opens the package, events spiral out of control in a violent way, leaving her with an increasingly difficult path to protect her family.

Ronan Blaney’s script manages to fashion a Loachian realism in the early stages, capturing a bleak, hard-scrabble existence that’s very much in line with Bolger’s grounded turn. But the plot mechanics are stretched to breaking point, with loquacious hoodlums circling and far, far too many deaths to avoid credulity going out the window. Having the bad guys discuss the connection between Tito’s name and the Yugoslavian dictator is the kind of indulgent, knowing dialogue that’s thankfully fallen out of fashion; the less we know about Sarah’s antagonists, the more frightening they are. Showing pond-life thugs engaging in writerly Alan Bennett wordplay throws the film’s gyroscope fatally out of whack.

But there’s a reason for reviewing, and for seeing a film like A Good Woman Is Hard to Find, and that’s Bolger. Increasingly the go-to girl for a strong performance, she burns up the screen as a protective, vulnerable mother, and she makes the film sing even when the clichés start to show. This is a tough, intermittently gripping thriller, but Bolger gives it a heart that makes A Good Woman is Hard to Find a cut above the norm.

The Beach Bum 2019 ***

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Oscars tend to be followed by complete career suicide films; Matthew McConaughey managed to completely sabotage his own reputation with efforts like Free State of Jones, The Dark Tower and Serenity. Teaming him with Harmony Korine, whose let-it-all-hang-out approach to drama has made him a must for mojo-seeking actors, was a smart idea; whatever else the actor is doing in The Beach Bum, and he seems to be breaking narcotics laws in practically every scene, he certainly seems to be, if not being himself, then living up to public perceptions of himself.

The Beach Bum is a writer called Moondog, Charles Bukowski- style, whose main subject seems to be capturing and immortalising in poetry the ruins of himself and his relationships. He’s married to Lingerie (Isla Fisher), and doesn’t seem bothered that she’s in a sexual relationship with another man (Snoop Dogg). In fact, he doesn’t seem to care less about her, or anything, other than getting high, until a plot twist forces him to face his demons, stop living such a hedonistic lifestyle, and get his act together to satisfy a legal stipulation.

Korine is a divisive film-maker, and The Beach Bum is something of a provocation, asking us to take an interest in a selfish, arrogant, mean-spirited and general detestable character, although there will be a small group who will see Moondog as some kind of holy fool. Either way, it’s simultaneously entertaining and repellent watching Moondog screw, blunt, dance and mug his way in and out of rehab, with Zac Efron, Jonah Hill and Martin Lawrence all adding to their outré credibility by phoning in lively if short cameos.

The Beach Bum is Korine’s best and most accessible film to date, hinging on an out-there star performance that’s worth celebrating for its sheer extremity; it would be worth voting for awards recognition just to see how a clip of The Beach Bum would look in the sizzle reel. McConaughey seems to be having fun, and there’s a reasonable punch-line to this shaggy dog story; one that suggests that the popular actor has got his own mojo back in some erratic style.

Blue Finch Film Releasing presents Harmony Korine’s The Beach Bum in select cinemas 25 October and on demand 30 October 2019

 

 

Due Date *** 2010

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The brief furore over Todd Phillips’ Joker provides a reasonable opportunity to look back on the other work of this unheralded auteur; before winning the Golden Lion of Venice, Phillips has been a prolific purveyor of low-brow comedies like the Hangover trilogy, tv reboot Starsky and Hutch, or teen comedy Road Trip. There have been attempts to lift his game as writer and director; War Dogs wasn’t bad at all, and this vehicle for Zack Galifinakis and Robert Downey Jr rehashes Planes, Trains and Automobiles and many odd-couple comedies to mildly entertaining effect.

Peter Highman (Downey Jr) is a tightly wound exec who gets knocked out of his rut when he meets Ethan Tremblay (Galifanakis) an aspiring actor who accidentally puts the two men on a no-fly blacklist after some on-board shenanigans involving lost luggage. Despite having little in common, the two men decide to drive from Atlanta to LA, with Tremblay’s dog in tow, and encountering Juliette Lewis, Jamie Foxx, Danny McBride and a few other notables along the way.

Due Date’s odd-couple comedy is pretty tired, and the tropes, which include various indignities for the ashes of Tremblay’s father, have been done to death. And yet Galifinakis does a great job of making Ethan a three-dimensional threat to his new friend, and even when the action gets quite silly during an extended Mexican border car-chase, the relationship stays grounded. Downey Jr is, despite his lengthy exposure as an A list star, still somewhat unfamiliar in such a low-key context, and he tests the unlikable edges of a self-absorbed character.

Critics may carp that Phillips is not a major director with something important to say, but there’s merit in making comedies, as there can be profundity in the tears of the clown. Joker aside, Phillips has been involved with a lot of big films; for those who didn’t take him seriously, who’s laughing now?

Judy 2019 ****

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There’s now a substantial awards season sub-genre of evocations of the lives of the rich and famous. Usually with the BBC logo on the front, these films are cheaply made, with a few period locations, and have the feeling of vanity projects for the stars. So from Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool to Stan and Ollie via My Week With Marilyn, these impersonations usually feel like they’ve been created to generate some awards traction; Rupert Goold’s Judy is easily the pick of the bunch so far.

The key factor here is Renee Zellweger, who has had plenty of snippy articles written about her appearance in the past, and seems to have been able to channel that negative energy into a remarkable, heartfelt portrait of a star in decline. With ex-husbands Sidney Lufts (Rufus Sewell) and new lover Mickey Deans (Finn Witrock) in tow, Judy Garland and her kids arrive in London cica 1968 to play a series of shows under the auspices of entrepreneur Lord Delfont (Michael Gambon). The shows are a risk, and Lonnie Donnegan waits backstage ready to fill in if Garland can’t continue with her act.

Booze and pills both enable and disable Garland’s performance, and triumph and disaster seem to be interlinked as the performances go from hit to miss. Of course, those in the audience for these London shows knew all about the star’s reputation, and there’s an element of a bear-pit here that partially explains how quickly the audience’s ire rises. Garland herself took advantage of the tension, tailoring her stage-act to deliberately raise questions about her fitness to perform. Tom Edge’s screenplay, taken from Peter Quilter’s stage-play, makes no bones about Garland having been abused from an early age in various ways, but what makes this incarnation fly is that Garland is portrayed, not as a victim, but as someone who is able to understand and articulate her own experiences and fight back

The musical scenes are very strong, with Zellweger’s voice up to scratch, and a real edge as we, like the audience, wait to see if Garland will be on song or not. There’s a few show-biz cliches here, but as Zellweger knocks it out of the park as a heart-breaking, self-aware middle-aged heroine, this is about as good as a film on this subject can be.

The Goldfinch 2019 *****

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Everything you’ve heard about The Goldfinch is wrong. Or at least, the slew of negative articles about John Crowley’s adaptation of Donna Tartt’s bestseller only tell part of the story. Those who are unfamiliar with Tartt’s uniquely porcelain prose, or her wonderfully wandering, lyrical storytelling style, must find a film version of The Goldfinch must be a confounding experience, and one that provides a rare opportunity to take a sky kick at corporate behemoth Amazon, whose Amazon Studios label co-produced this prestigious film. But amongst the articles crowing about the potential amount of money lost, and gawping at film-makers who dare to turn their vision to white privilege, there’s a secret truth about Crowley’s film; it’s a meticulous, beautifully mounted adaptation that deserves an audience.

The Goldfinch is about a boy, Theodore Decker, played by Oakes Fegley and then by Angel Elgort. At the age of 13, Decker sees his mother killed in a bombing at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and staggers from the chaos with a copy of a rare painting of a Goldfinch in his rucksack. Despite gravitating towards the mother of a friend (Nicole Kidman) and an antiques dealer (Jeffrey Wright), Decker is sent in Dickensian fashion to stay with his errant father (Luke Wilson) and his partner (Sarah Paulson) in a semi-constructed suburb of Las Vegas. A drug-addled friendship with a young Russian (Stranger Things’ Finn Wolfhard) provides Decker with some much-needed relief, but the painting remains a secret, a connection with his mother that Decker finds impossible to let go of.

Condensing a 600 page novel into a script is a tough assignment, and Peter Straughn’s work on Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Wolf Hall marked him out as a perfect candidate for the job. He finds an ideal ally in cinematographer Roger Deakins, who brings a stark clarity to the film, which buzzing lights in the background suggesting another world just out of reach. And Crowley is a uniquely sensitive director, able to capture the uncertainty of Decker as a boy and a young adult, and to make his struggle with grief accessible.

Sensation seekers need to apply for a finely wrought film like The Goldfinch; there’s no explanation for the bombing, and the resolution is deliberately satisfying in a thematic rather than a crowd-pleasing way. Opening against Hustlers, one of the few adult orientated films of 2019, was probably the final nail in the coffin for The Goldfinch theatrically, but those who ignore the general disapproval may well be surprised; it’s a first rate film.