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.

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Hustlers 2019 ****

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One magazine is going with ‘the most important film of the year’ for Hustlers, which would be a pretty damning condemnation of the inconsequential quality of much of the year’s films. Hustler feels like the latest reaction to the MeToo era, and creating crime movies with a ‘sisters are doing it for themselves’ vibe. With credits for both ‘Stripper consultant’ and ‘Wall Street Consultant’, at least the production has done some due diligence on the subject in hand, and it shows.

Hustlers follows on from Oceans 8 (awful) and Widows (better) as a number of female star names join forces to make a buck and beat the system, with various male antagonists in their way. Based on an article and taking some inspiration from a real story, writer/director Lorne Scafaria’s film doubles-down on the bitches-get-riches formula, keeping the stakes small and realistic; Constance Wu from Crazy Rich Asians is Oliver to Jennifer Lopez’s pole-dancing Fagin, teaching her how to dope strip-club clients with a mixture of Ketamine and MDMA while the girls cleans out their bank accounts. Of course, their clients are Wall Street scumbags, so Hustlers feels that the victims deserve all they get, and it’s only when Wu’s character shows mercy to one client that things fall apart. Hustlers does seem to have a sociological statement up its sleeve; that women, given the chance, will be as greedy as men; paying granny’s medical bills is the initial motivation, but funky expensive shoes and handbags prove to be the real undoing of Lopez’s gang.

Much as I Tonya took the clichés of the Scorsese gangster movie and revitalised them by having a female point of view, Hustlers is a female-version of Goodfellas, the fun is watching a gang come together and fall apart due to greed. Pop stars Cardi B and Lizzo have brief cameos to add value, and Usher manages a brief cameo as himself in which he manages to enter a nightclub and say his own name, pretty much the level of achievement that might be expected of a five-year old in a nativity play. But Wu and Lopez have lots to do, and they do it with great style; Lopez’s dancing is pretty sensational, and she’s got her career back on track here after the hilariously awful Second Act. The punchlines can be summed up in two lines the two lines; ‘’ Hurt people hurt people’ and ‘motherhood is a mental illness’. Hustlers looks at women, greed, crime and money, and it’s an absorbing mix of Goodfellas and Flashdance; a big hit is one the cards, and deservedly so, it’s a big, flashy, entertaining movie that poses a few interesting moral questions alongside the handbag porn.

Salome’s Last Dance 1988 ***

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As well as a peerless acting career, Glenda Jackson has had a second act as a politician, serving as a Labour MP in the UK parliament before retiring to act again in 2015. As she takes to the stage in a 1882 brothel in Ken Russell’s film, surrounded by topless models and portly men in leather thongs, it’s easy to see how her political and theatrical goals might look similar; anyone wondering what other strings British MP’s have to their bows should pay close attention. Decadence, as it often is with Russell, is the subject; Oscar Wilde (Nickolas Grace) retreats to a bordello to watch various creatures of low morals perform his banned play Salome, which is reproduced here in full, translated by Russell’s wife Vivian. Stratford Johns, beloved tv detective turned unlikely muse for late-period Russell, makes an arrogant Herod, and Imogen Millias-Scott plays Salome in a off-kilter way; her striptease is given a non-binary twist by Russell using a man as her body double to sting any potential voyeurs. Salome’s Last Dance is a hard film to sit through, consisting largely of monologues which have gained a certain mustiness over time. But the costume and staging are as imaginative as might be expected; Russell was a creative force, and it would be nice if the fan-boys who scramble over his most salacious work (The Devils, Tommy) showed some interest in this difficult, but surprisingly melancholy and mature take on the methodical literary madness of Oscar Wilde.

 

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.

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.

The Red Queen Kills Seven Times 1972 ****

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‘Even the police know I’m an incredible nymphomaniac!’ is a good sample line from Emilio Miraglia’s wonderfully overcooked giallo, which keeps one guessing by being so nutty that placing a bet on who-dunnit is all but impossible. Barbara Bouchet is Kitty, one of two sisters (Marina Malfatti is the other, Franziska) who have been brought up to fear a family curse that may lead to murder; a flashback reveals that Kitty already has reasons to feel guilt. The death of their grandfather promises a liquidation of finances and potential windfalls for all of the Wildenbrück family, but his will proves inconclusive. The action shifts to a successful fashion house which seems to be called Springe; Kitty is having an affair with the company’s boss Martin (Ugo Pagliali) whose wife is mentally ill. With various murders taking place, could the supernatural Red Queen be taking her revenge on the family, or is the solution something more practical? The real solution is so complicated that even several readings of the Wikipedia page fail to clarify exactly what happened, but it’s fun getting there; the costumes and décor are super-stylish, as are the Bavarian locations. This is a lively giallo, full of twists and turns, never boring and often intriguing; the great Sybill Danning also appears as a windfall bonus.

The Witch Who Came From The Sea 1976 ***

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It’s the answer to the trivia question; what connects family favourite Back to the Future to the notorious video nasties, films banned by the UK government as potentially morally corruptive influences back in 1984? Cinematographer Dean Cundey warmed up for Marty McFly with this bleak, hard and for-sure nasty female killer drama, but it’s one that deserves a different kind of reputation. Actress Millie Perkins had once played the lead in Diary of Anne Frank; here she’s Molly, a troubled abuse victim who descends into madness, seducing, castrating and murdering men she sees on television while working in a seafront bar in Santa Monica. Despite the title, there’s no supernatural content; the title of this sleazy, yet erudite film relates to Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, which is discussed in some detail. The murder scenes are deeply unpleasant and it’s tempting to look away, but the rest of Matt Cimber’s film is no easier to watch, with a frank and unsparing treatment of the incest that Molly suffered, seen here in flashback. Written by Perkins’ husband Robert Thom, The Witch is more character study that exploitation film; almost like a female version of Taxi Driver from the same year. Perkins throws herself into a deep, troubling role, and Lonny Chapman, from Hitchcock’s The Birds, is support. This has, for obvious reasons, been a film that’s been put well out of reach of the public; this Arrow Films release may well generate a cult audience. Cimber went on to make the Pia Zadora vehicles Butterfly and Fake Out, but it’s arguable whether he, Thom or Perkins is the real author of this powerful, upsetting portrait of a wronged and sympathetic woman.