Salt and Pepper 1968 ***

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Continuing with my selective Sammy Davis Junior season, this Richard Donner film was presumably enough of a hit to spawn a sequel, One More Time in 1970. There’s something of a lurch of tone between the two films, much like the one between Our Man Flint and In Like Flint; the sequels killed each franchise by toning down the expensive action and doubling down on silly comedy. Salt and Pepper plays better than One More Time, yet there’s still more than enough cultural dissonance to make it a revealing snapshot of swinging sixties mores.

Salt and Pepper are Sammy Davis Junior and Peter Lawford, two nightclub owners in London’s seedy Soho district, a ‘legitimate sewer’ says Pepper. There’s quite a few exterior shots which give a picture of the strip-joints and clubs at presumably a prosperous time for exploiting women, an establishment called The Strip-It features largely. The characters are always in trouble with the law, and the laughs start when a Chinese call-girl is murdered in the club. This sparks action, in that the boys have to find the real killer before the police pin the killing on them, but it’s also notable that there’s no sense of gravity or sadness about a woman’s death. In fact, it’s genuinely disturbing that Pepper attempts to chat up the girl, unaware that she’s dying; ‘She’s stoned,’ says Pepper. ‘Maybe god has sent us a gift?’ asks Salt with a cheeky smile. ‘No, we’ll return this package unwrapped,’ says Salt, as if passing up an opportunity to force themselves on semi-unconscious women was something unusual and sad.

Salt and Pepper has a real setting, but the behaviour captured is extreme and cartoonish, an issue which is never resolved. Comic subjects include such jovialities as police station bombings, and the japes run all the way up to government level where we see the prime minister prepare to fire nuclear weapons on Scotland for reasons too convoluted to explain. Lionel Blair stages a musical number while Jeremy Lloyd, Graham Stark and Geoffrey Lumsden wander around as Central Casting stuffy Brits. John Le Mesurier plays a villain complete with a pirate’s eye-patch, pursuing Sammy and Pete as they scoot down Carnaby Street around in a yellow mini-moke kitted out with oil slicks, machine guns and other familiar accoutrements.

Donner would go on to capture another racially charged partnership in Lethal Weapon, but judged by today’s standards, Salt and Pepper is notable as one of cinema’s most  cess-pits of toxic masculinity. It’s not just women that are treated as a non-precious commodity. ‘I was a fag here for two years,’ says Pepper of his alma mater, prompting some world-class bug-eyed mugging from Salt and the reply ‘You’re secret is safe with me.’ White, heterosexual men rule the roost, set the agenda, and everyone else is just decoration. MeToo has licenced a few sanctimonious bores, but if you want to see why such movements are absolutely necessary, Salt and Pepper captures the rancil feel of a time, leaving the worst possible taste in your mouth.

https://www.amazon.com/Salt-Pepper-Sammy-Davis/dp/B0096HLH00/ref=sr_1_2?keywords=salt+and+pepper+1968&qid=1573379365&sr=8-2

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.

Liquid Sky 1982 ***

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Liquid Sky sounded like quite an amazing movie when it first came out in 1982; aliens who invade New York to harvest the opiate produced at the moment of orgasm from beautiful clubbers? Sign me up, thought my 13 year old self, only to be somewhat stymied and baffled by the art-house, post-Warhol leanings of Liquid Sky itself. Don’t expect any aliens, in fact, there’s only a paper-plate flying saucer, and special effects are restricted largely to basic chroma-key which interrupt rather than illustrate Slavia Tsukerman’s sci-fi drama. The focus is not really sex, or sci-fi, but drugs, specifically heroin and cocaine, both of which seem to be widely popular in the slice of NYC rooftop club-land featured. Margaret (Anne Carlisle) plays both Margaret and Jimmy, two characters who get caught up in the alien’s enthusiasm for heroin; with glass shards appearing embedded in the heads of victims, who then vanish into thin air, it’s clear that there’s something allegorical going on, but Liquid Sky is too slippery to allow an easy definition. Whatever’s going on, the costumes are wild, the NYC club scene is well caught, and the print on Amazon Prime is surprisingly good; Liquid Sky has become a huge cult movie, and if you’ve never heard of it, broad-minded viewers will always find something outré in this weird and occasionally wonderful film.

We Are Your Friends 2015 ****

Film Review-We Are Your Friends

‘Secret success’ is a phrase the critic Nathan Rabin coined for his excellent My Year of Flops project; while Zac Efron vehicle We Are Your Friends fell pretty hard at the box office on release, it’s probably a better film that it’s unheralded nature might suggest. Efron plays DJ Cole Carter, who is trying to make a name for himself in the electronic dance music scene, and gains a mentor in James Reed (Wes Bentley), who encourages him to use real sounds rather than computer-generated ones. Reed does not like Carter’s friends, and Carter’s relationship with Reed’s girlfriend Sophie (Emily Ratajkowski) only complicates matters. That’s not the most compelling story for a feature, but Max Joseph’s debut film uses a loose Star is Born structure to hang an ambient rave simulator on. It’s kind of fun to compare this high-gloss, super-slick production to the Scottish movie Beats, which has a black and white, gritty aesthetic in its consideration of rave culture. As entertainment, We Are Your Friends has plenty to recommend it, including an animated sequence in which Cole starts tripping in an art gallery and the paintings come to life, plus lots of montages overlaid with well-chosen music. And the ending, which reveals that Cole Carter has been secretly following his mentor’s advice all through the picture, really packs an emotional punch. Like the central character, We Are Your Friends has a bad reputation, but if you’re prepared to shut up and enjoy the music and blissed-out visuals, it’s a surprisingly smooth ride.

Beats 2019 ****

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After the pioneering work of Bills Douglas and Forsyth, then the bursts of energy created by the Trainspotting/ Braveheart era, the Scottish film industry has had feet of clay every since; a slew of Scottish Screen/Creative Scotland funded duds which not only failed on their own merits, but also stopped any indie scene from developing. Brian Welsh’s Beats feels like the kind of low-budget, high yield drama that could have been made at any point since the millennium; a simple story of friendship between two Scottish boys Johnno and Spanner (Christian Ortega and Lorne Macdonald), this adaptation of Kieran Hurley’s play is shot in a spare black and white, with occasional bursts of colour when the music takes over, notably in an eye-popping rave scene. The spirit of the mid-90’s period is well caught, and the narrative is carefully charted to avoid the clichés that hobble most local films. Beats is the kind of accessible, entertaining film that looks easy to make, but requires considerable skill all round; anyone who ever lost their mind outside a Portakabin in a field goodness-knows-where will know exactly what Beats is all about.

Beats has a UK release on DVD and blu-ray from September 9th 2019. Or Stream Below.

The Jazz Singer 1980 ***

The-Jazz-Singer-1980-film-images-647f42f0-a04e-4e4b-9126-eceb608df93Richard Fleischer’s 1980 vehicle for Neil Diamond is something of a strange proposition; after all, what’s Neil Diamond got to do with jazz? The AOR Singer presumably wasn’t a title that appealed, but Diamond’s music has endured, and he certainly brought his A-game to providing an ace set of songs for the soundtrack. America, Hello Again and Love On The Rocks are belters in any era, and it’s no surprise the soundtrack made more money than the film. On reflection, could there been conceptual errors behind a film that starts in rather offensive fashion with Neil Diamond in black-face? Probably; the point of this cultural -identity crisis is that only by blacking–up can Jess (Diamond) escape the Jewish traditions his father (Laurence Olivier) wants him to take on board, and the more popular his music is, the more his father disapproves.  ‘Ay hef no son!’ is Cantor Rabonovich’s much-quoted dismissal of Jess’s career choice, but things end happily enough with Olivier jigging away in a stadium gig to the synth-blast opening of America. The Jazz Singer is an amusing film, a vanity project from a star who has got little to be modest about; Diamond has maintained a sky-high level of stardom by touring and reinvention, and The Jazz Singer is exactly the kind of excessive project a real star creates. Bonus points for Paul Nicholas’s wonderfully awful cameo as a British rock star whose speed-metal cover of Love on the Rocks irks Diamond.

https://www.amazon.com/Jazz-Singer-Neil-Diamond/dp/B07RG8TZVR/ref=sr_1_2?keywords=jazz+singer+1980&qid=1565165773&s=gateway&sr=8-2

Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love 2019 ****

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Nick Broomfield has made plenty of socially-conscious documentaries, but he was obviously posh enough to be hanging out on the Greek island of Hydra back in the 1970’s where an artistic community were engaged in the process of getting mashed up in the service of creative indulgence. Amongst those Broomfield seems to have been hanging out with, or at least in the same circle as, was Leonard Cohen, who was writing an unreadable book under the influence of acid, and his lover Marianne Ihlen. The two were lovers, but Cohen’s insatiable appetite for banging groupies proved to be too much for her to take, and they reluctantly went through a conscious uncoupling long before it was fashionable. Broomfield has good access to private and public footage, and some very salacious talking heads who testify to the excess of the 1970’s; while the story may not be extraordinary in itself, the punch-line is heart-breaking and well-documented. It feels like a welcome personal film from Broomfield; not a biopic, but a love story, and one which reflects thoughtfully on both male selfishness and female forgiveness.