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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The Dark Half 1993 ****

Stephen King’s writing is so cinematic, it’s frustrating how easily film-makers are seduced into altering his words, structures, characters and themes. George A Romero was a friend of the author, and his adaptation of King’s The Dark Half is an underrated horror film that’s got both a pulp fiction sensibility but also a playful literary intelligence. Timothy Hutton is developing into a real horror icon post Haunting of Hill House; here he delivers two memorable performances as writer Thad Beaumont and someone claiming to be his pseudonym George Stark. The word pseudonym is tentatively used here, since a big part of The Dark Half’s appeal is working out who or exactly what George Stark is; lawman Alan Pangborn (Michael Rooker) is as baffled as everyone else as he tries to solve the murders the plague Beaumont and his wife Liz (Amy Madigan). Beaumont does not know that as a child, the foetal remains of an undeveloped twin were removed from his brain; how this might have led to an evil twin figure isn’t fully explained, but the suggestion of Beaumont’s colleague Reggie (Julie Harris) is that Beaumont has somehow willed this Dionysian figure into life. There isn’t room for the two of them on this earth, and the gatherings of sparrows that appear in the Maine skies, specifically in the Castle Rock area, suggest that the devil is ready to drag one of them to hell. The Dark Half was reportedly King’s last work before he sobered up, and it’s easy to see why he’s get on the wagon. There’s a dangerous, self-destructive theme here about a writer too willing to delve into the deepest, darkest areas of his psyche; in King’s book, fictional protagonist Alexis Machine’s rampages set the violent, nihilistic tone. Romero gets it, and fashions a perceptive look at the dualism inherent in the male psyche, with Hutton doing an incredible job to evoke both men, and Romero not afraid to make the horror scenes genuinely horrific. Various financial reasons stopped The Dark Half from reaching an audience, but it’s one of Romero and King’s best. It also bears remarkable resemblances to Bret Easton Ellis’s novel Luner Park, which doubles down on the roman a clef notion of an author plagued by his own creation. The Dark Half fuses elements of Frankenstein and Dr Jekyll myths and comes up with something dark and disturbing; hopefully the current (2019) vibe for all things King will attract the audience it deserves on streaming.

JT LeRoy 2018 ****

JT_LEROY_ONE_SHEET-1There’s plenty of films about hoaxes; the nature of a disguise works well in cinema. Savannah Knoop was the young girl who appeared in public as the reclusive author of three autobiographical works; as with other hoaxes, it did not end well, and she published a memoir explaining what she did and why. That memoir is now the subject of a sophisticated film by writer/director Justin Kelly, who manages to avoid any tabloid trashiness, yet still manages to evoke the personal, private horror of a private arrangement that explodes in the public eye. Sister of Geoff (Jim Strugess), Savannah (Kristen Stewart) arrives in San Francisco only to fall under the spell of his girlfriend Laura (Laura Dern). Laura has had literary success as JT Leroy, but needs someone to attend book-signings and literary events. With a blond wig and glasses, Savannah fits the bill, but once an actress (Diane Kruger) is wowed by Laura’s phone-sex skills, a mooted movie-version of LeRoy’s second book threatens to bring a spotlight that shines too brightly for the conspirators to hide from. That Kruger’s character Eva iseemsbased on Asia Argento (whose LeRoy adaptation The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things premiered at Cannes) adds the further layer of notoriety; if nothing else, Kelly’s film illustrates William Goldman’s film industry maxim that nobody knows anything. Eva is presented in a very negative way, offering sex in return for the rights to the book, and then moving onto another relationship once they are secured.’ I made this film for you,’ Eva shrieks, while both Laura and Savannah come out of Kelly’s film with some bonds of friendship intact. Most films about the media have a tin ear; JT LeRoy feels painfully real, not least because Stewart is a great, vulnerable lead, but also because Dern oozes self-assuredness, not least when she’s playing Speedy, an invented personal manager and fixer for LeRoy whose strangulated English accent and colourful wig brings to mind perennial British media non-entity Janet Street Porter.

JT LeRoy is in UK  Cinemas and Digital from 16th August 2019.

The Rewrite 2014 ***

rewriteWriter/director Marc Lawrence is something of an invisible auteur, making a series of popular rom-coms with the likes of Hugh Grant and Sandra Bullock which generally do well, yet his name is unnoticed. The Rewrite is one of his best, pitting Grant’s jaded screenwriter Keith Michaels into the academic snake-pit of an East Coast college. Despite his slovenly manner and non-existent teaching methods, Michaels becomes a hit with his class, and gets to strike romantic sparks with Marisa Tomei. While some of the details of the class are unpersuasive, the atmosphere of the classroom is warm and enjoyable, and as the rain-drops fall on the windows outside, Grant’s wayward teacher is good company in this undemanding comedy with few laughs but more than a little heart.

The End of the Tour 2015 ****

end-of-the-tour-03Making a movie about the late David Foster Wallace is a daunting proposition, and it seems that the author’s estate’s unhappiness with the End of the Tour stopped it from reaching an audience. That’s a shame, because James Ponsoldt’s film is a genuine and provocative look at writing, the creative process and friendship. Jesse Eisenberg plays Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky, who requests an interview with Wallace after the publication of Infinite Jest, and is surprised when it’s granted. Jason Segel makes the most of Wallace’s eccentricities, but the author’s legacy is in no way diminished by the comedy. Seen as an unauthorized account of Wallace, The End of the Tour is a fascinating piece of work; when so many authorized biographies whitewash and conceal, Ponsoldt’s honest drama attempts to get to the core of Wallace as a person, and should spur a few cineastes to read his work.

Tom & Viv 1994 ***

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Biopics of writers have an inherent problem; how to dramatise the prose. Brian Gibson’s 1994 film deals with poet TS Elliot and his relationship with Vivienne Haigh-Wood. Adapted from Michael Hastings’ play, Gibson astutely casts two excellent actors, Willem Dafoe and Miranda Richardson as Tom & Viv, and focuses on how her gynecological problems caused havoc with their understanding of each other. The 1915 setting is carefully depicted, less for the period detail as the attitudes conveyed, with Viv’s mood-swings hard to explain in the polite society of the Bloomsbury group, and Tom’s writings not seen as a viable career. Tom and Viv is a delicate, realistic love story.

Ruby Sparks 2012 ***

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As grand-daughter of the great Elia Kazan, it’s not surprising that Zoe Kazan has forged a Hollywood careers as an actress in films like Revolutionary Road. What’s more impressive is that she wrote and starred in this original comedy/drama about writer Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano) who invents the character of Ruby Sparks, only to have her pop into his life in the form of Kazan. Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris made their names with Little Miss Sunshine, and Ruby Sparks takes their comic abilities into darker territory, reflecting cleverly on what men want from women; Calvin thinks he wants to control Ruby, but finds that such control is unsatisfying. Support from Annette Benning and Antonio Banderas is entertaining if not entirely relevant as Calvin’s eccentric parents, and Steve Coogan contributes another well-honed turn as Calvin’s literary mentor. Not entirely funny or romantic, Ruby Sparks is surprisingly profound in the way it handles a light conceit, and marks a breakthrough role for Kazan.