King Cohen: The Wild World of Filmmaker Larry Cohen 2017 ****

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The late Larry Cohen’s name may not mean much to your average multiplexer, but his name is synonymous with the kind of imaginative, off-the-wall and defiantly original fare that’s worth putting money down to see. Cohen was an artist and a commercial film-maker, who write every day, played the system, and won; repeatedly, over decades. Writer/director Steve Mitchell knows that the films are all elsewhere; a few tantalising clips are all that are needed, but King Cohen is a talking heads documentary and all the better for it. And what heads! JJ Abrams throws the first ball, with a story involving Cohen, a broken down car and a mutant baby doll, and it’s clear that Abrams was severely star-struck. Martin Scorsese, Joe Dante, John Landis and others play tribute, but it’s Fred Williamson that steals the show with his smoothly-delivered recollections, which don’t match up exactly with Cohen’s version of events. Even hard-core cineastes and horror fans are likely to learn something new here, about Cohen’s prolific tv work, his debut feature Bone, or his habit of shooting on the fly that led him, quite literally, to J Edgar Hoover’s door. Despite mainstream success, he remained a maverick and an underground film-maker; after years of searching I finally bought my copy of God Told Me To from a pop-up street-vendor of obscure movies in NYC’s Union Square, within sight of the Chrysler building where he used the construction scaffolding to shoot action scenes for Q-The Winged Serpent. This rapid-fire doc should encourage fans and casual viewers alike to check out the canon of this unique, idiosyncratic talent.

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Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s The Island of Dr Moreau 2015 ****

Having burst onto the cinematic scene with the impressively realised low-budget sci-fi Hardware, hopes were high that Richard Stanley was going to ascend to a James Cameron level of creative work; he certainly knew how to make visceral cinema. The likeable South African came a cropper with the film version of The Island of Dr Moreau, and this documentary, reviewed on Amazon Prime, sees David Gregory interview a number of suspects as to who killed his movie. From New Line’s point of view, Stanley’s departure from the film is very much his own fault; one exec tells a strange story about not liking Stanley because he asked for too much sugar in his coffee, a claim that Stanley refutes. Whatever prowess Stanley had, any director would have been unsettled by Marlon Brandon wanting to rewrite the script to reveal his character was a dolphin, or insisting on wearing an ice-bucket on his head during takes. If Brando endlessly teasing dogs with his laser pointer wasn’t enough, further chaos arrives in the form of Val Kilmer, anecdotally revealed as something of a control freak. Or indeed any number of elements; Stanley’s vision of the film seems over-ambitious, but it also seems borderline criminal that this young director didn’t have a strong first AD to support him. Stanley’s firing, then sneaking back onto the set disguised as a monster is the stuff of urban myth, but it’s only one of a wealth of bizarre stories captured here. Allusions between Wells’ text and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness are explored, and Stanley’s family connection to Conrad’s book is also a real point of interest. Stanley has indicated that the doc isn’t entirely accurate, but it is entertaining, particularly the cast’s impressions of replacement director John Frankenheimer. It’s enough to engender hopes that Stanley’s next project, an adaptation of H.P Lovecraft’s Color Out Of Space, starring Nicolas Cage, will offers him a more playable hand than on this occassion.

Memory: The Origins of Alien 2019 ****

Anyone who saw the recent documentary about the much vaunted failure of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s attempt to make Dune will have been struck by the contribution of the late Dan O’Bannon; his vision of the director sparking lightning bolts from his eyes suggested something more than the usual gushing EPK quotes. Fresh from his dissection of Alfred Hitchcock’s shower scene from Psycho, Alexandre O. Phillippe turns his attention to Ridley Scott’s classic 1979 shocker; hardened veterans and Space Marines alike will find something new in this considerations of the myriad elements that gave Alien such a rich and striking look.  Critics in 1979 complained about the derivative nature of Alien, but O’Bannon’s claim was that he stole from everyone. So while fans will know the debt Alien owes to It! The Terror From Beyond Space, Planet of the Vampires and Dark Star, the allusions to various comic books are less familiar, and the Memory title relates to a script by O’Bannon where the crew are picked off, not by a creature, but by their own failing memories, something of a Tarkovsky nod. There’s a focus on HR Giger, original crew members discussing how the chest-buster scene felt when filming, and Scott’s own classical influences are nailed down to specifics. A picture emerges of a fortuitous film that pulled together a number of varied talents; Scott handing a book by Francis Bacon to Giger on-set explains a lot about the serendipity involved. Memory: The Origins of Alien has such a wealth of strong visual material to consider that it’s worth a trip to the big screen to fully immerse oneself in, although streaming will allow fans to freeze frame pictures and documents; even if the final conclusions aren’t quite as compelling as might be expected, Memory is an essential document for all who respond to the primal call of the Xenomorph.

Memory: The Origins of Alien will be released in UK cinemas from Aug 30 2019 and on streaming, DVD and Blu Ray on September 2 2019. Click the link below to check when the film is viewable in your country.

Frankenstein’s Monster’s Monster Frankenstein 2019 ****

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Actor David Harbour presumably had a blank check to cash on the back of his success in Stranger Things; it’s a shame that the actor couldn’t find anything better to do with his Netflix cash than to rest on his family laurels. Harbour has taken it upon himself to exhume footage from his father David Harbour Jr’s excellent TV production of Frankenstein; a classic show, fondly remembered, but ill-served by his son’s piece-meal handling of the footage here. Harbour’s grandfather, the great David Harbour III must surely be turning in his grave, as must Mary Shelley’s poor, beknighted creation. Of course, it doesn’t help that so many of the ideas here have been done better elsewhere; the iconic meat commercial featured here was ripped off shamelessly by Transformers star Orson Welles for his Frozen Pea performance art installation, and the abrupt commercials, plus the rickety doors and windows of the set were an obvious influence of Dan Curtis’s Dark Shadows. Even the title is a clear spin on Kenneth Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; it’s hard to imagine that an actor as storied as Harbour isn’t aware of that text, or even of the IMDB itself where such information might freely be found! Still, there’s some vague amusement to be found as Harbour questions those who remember his father, with faded stars like Alfred Molina, Kate Berlant, and newcomers like Mary Wonorov and Michael J. Lerner, still remembered from the Back to the Future films. It would have been better to use Harbour’s ill gotten gains for a full restoration of The Actor’s Trunk, a much admired show given precious little screen-time here, than on this miserly cash in on the Harbour family jewels. Perhaps Harbour’s proposed sequel, tentatively pre-cancelled at Amazon Instant Now Video Today and titled Frankenstein’s Monster’s Monster Frankenstein; The True Story, should be made just to set things right.

https://www.netflix.com/watch/81003981?source=35

Darling 1965 ****

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John Schlesinger’s best work has stood the test of time; Darling isn’t particularly well remembered today, but it’s a sleeping giant of a film, with a script by Frederick Raphael (Eyes Wide Shut) that deserved its Academy Awards win. Julie Chistie also won an Oscar for her portrayal of Diana Scott, a British model who escapes her humdrum marriage as her career temporarily ignites at the hands of various powerful men, including Dirk Bogarde and Laurence Harvey. Perhaps it’s the black and white photography that was at odds with the examination of glamorous jet-set lifestyles; Darling’s concerns seem remarkably modern now, and in keeping with the meetoo movement in a portrayal of a woman wronged. There’s no sentiment here, nor redemption, just observation of how the sweet life might turn sour for one individual, and how escape from one set of traps might turn into a dead end. Success is shown to be an illusion, and perhaps that’s why Darling’s portrait of an amoral world hasn’t resonated; a revival on streaming may find a new audience for this skilful dissection of a life drained of meaning.

The Ghost of Peter Sellers 2019 ****

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Peter Medak went to hell and back on the 1973 comedy Ghosts of the Noonday Sun, a film from the worst period of it’s errant star, Peter Sellers. Sellers graduated through some awesome comedy work on radio via The Goon Show to international film-stardom via The Pink Panther franchise. The attention went to his head, and his early 1970’s vehicles would test the patience of anyone; watching The Great McGonagall or Soft Beds, Hard Battles is agonising, because the star is clearly a comic genius, but the films are pitifully unfunny. Medak’s 2019 reflection on working with Sellers is, however, something of a joy to watch, because the director is able to conjure a complete, warts and even more warts portrait of their working relationship. With sparing use of clips from the original film, which is available elsewhere, Medak details some truly awful behaviour on set; notably faking a heart-attack to skip back to London and have dinner with Princess Margaret while the entire crew waited anxiously for news of his condition. Medak also manages to put together some additional detail that’s telling; a cigarette commercial featuring Spike Milligan is something of a gem, and reveals the rich vein of anarchic humour that both men aspired to. Films about film-making are often vain-glorious affairs, but The Ghost of Peter Sellers is one of the best because it’s so painfully honest; to rephrase Billy Wilder’s aphorism, they film-makers start out wanting to make a great film, and by halfway, were delighted to think they’d have any kind of film at all. Medak may have failed to rein in Sellers’ antics in 1972, but he gets the last laugh here.

The Canyons 2013 ***

If you take late period Paul Schrader, post-Affliction but pre-First Reformed, and give him an original script by Bret Easton Ellis, you’d expect some nihilistic stuff, and in The Canyons, you’d be pretty much right.  Loathed by audiences and critcs on initial release, a quiet revival on Amazon Prime should help rehabilitate the reputation of this cool, otherworldly thriller. Ellis has cultivated a specific style of expression through narration and dialogue, but he strips out the pop-culture references and has his characters express themsleves in an even more opaque way here, which creates a striking blankness ideal for privileged LA wheeler-dealer Chritian (James Deen) and his floozie wife (Lindsay Lohan). There’s an undercurrent of menace, and a disturbing lack of the kind of moral spoonfeeding that most films offer, making The Canyons somewhat experimental in outlook. Letting it all hang out, Lohan gives the film’s best performance, and mature viewers seeking a bitter shot of the darker side of Hollywood could do worse than giving The Canyons a visit.