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.

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. Thanks to @scifibulletin @AimPublicity and @Dogwoof  for supplying access and for sending me a disc!

Click the link below to check when the film is viewable in your country.

Under The Volcano 1984 ****

‘You can’t apologise for some things,’ mutters Geoffrey Firmin (Albert Finney) after someone explains the murderous plot of the classic horror movie The Hands of Orlac. It’s a key line, repeated later in the film, from Guy Gallo’s adaptation of Malcolm Lowry’s novel, that captures Firmin’s guilt and defiance in the face of death. Firmin seems unaware that mortality is catching up with him in John Huston’s stirring drama. Stirring not in the sense of rousing, but stirring up memories of alcoholism and addiction; think of the worst case you’ve encountered, and Firmin matches it. Played with total immersion by Albert Finney, Firmin drinks all day and all night, is rarely sober, and yet is partially protected by privilege. He’s the British consul in a small Mexican town, one which is celebrating the Day of the Dead. It’s a momentous juncture; Firmin’s wife Yvonne (Jacqueline Bisset) has just returned, and Firmin has aspirations to get on the wagon, but time is running out. Huston’s late period is dotted with underrated films, and Under the Volcano, despite Oscar nominations, has fallen out of favour; a rebirth on streaming should rectify that, with the new print showing nuances of acting and direction that VHS pan and scan could not capture. The opening, directed by Huston’s son Danny, makes great play of Day of the Dead iconography, and there’s arresting moments such as Firmin’s lament for the ‘beauty of an old Mexican woman and a chicken’. Under the Volcano is a tough watch, but it nails the central character, and Bisset does well to hold her own with Finney when he’s in full tilt.

Firepower 1979 ***

Producer Lew Grade certainly had an eye for a bad movie; ponying up for The Cassandra Crossing, Saturn 3 and Raise the Titanic indicates a complete lack of discernment , and presumably that’s what led him to the door of director Michael Winner. Even Winner’s successes, notably Death Wish, are in dubious taste, but his worst efforts have to be seen to be believed, and Firepower is pretty bad. Originally developed as a Dirty Harry movie, Firepower is a shambolic violent caper movie set in a drab looking Caribbean. James Coburn plays Jerry Fanon, a gun-for-hire who agrees to locate and secure reclusive businessman Carl Stegner, teaming up with Adela Tasca (Sophia Loren) who wants revenge on the billionaire for personal reasons. With the film-makers imagination seemingly taken up by thinking of strange character names like Manley Reckford, securing appearances by Jake LaMotta and OJ Simpson, blowing up buildings or demolishing them with bulldozers, there’s little chance for old-timers like Eli Wallach or Vincent Gardenia to shine. The final action scenes have a couple of great shots to recommend them, but most of Firepower is notable only as a repository of disinterested performances and seemingly improvised quirks; Loren’s ability to make scrambled egg sandwiches is her most interesting trait, while Coburn unwisely play two characters in the same scene without any special effects; Winner’s inability to frame the two characters convincingly reduces this scene, like many others here, into a Godardian mush of incoherence. There’s a lot going on in Firepower, but not much of it is in front of the camera; a brief glimpse of Victor Mature with green hair tops things off with just the right bizarre note in time for the closing credits. And any film which has a specific credit for saxophone solos deserves a  special mention in dispatches;  slathered over the locations like a cheap balm, these moments of musical noodling turn the stomach and yet tickle the mind with their awfulness, much like Winner himself.

Hunter Killer 2018 ****

There’s not much hunting, but a whole lot of killing in Hunter Killer; the subject is submarines in modern warfare, and Gerry Butler is the man with the answers. He’s Commander Joe Glass, a maverick who doesn’t play by the rules; he does things HIS way! Pretty much everything about Joe is a cliché, but Donovan Marsh’s thriller attempts to make up for in incident what it lacks in originality. Glass takes command of the American USS Arkansas at the Faslane nuclear base in Scotland; he’s sent on a secret mission deep into the Arctic where another submarine has gone missing. Glass ends up teaming up with Russian sub Konek and it’s captain Sergei Andropov (Michael Nvqvist) to foil a Russian coup d’etat and rescue the deposed Russian president, while back in the US, weasely Admiral Charles Donnegan (Gary Oldman) watches as the action escalates. Oldman is playing a character who ducks responsibility, but he seems to take the role quite literally, rarely clearly in shot and usually scurrying out of frame; rarely has an actor looked like they didn’t actually want to be in a film. Given the manliness on show, that’s no surprise; Hunter Killer is a big, beefy Tom Clancy-type thriller that takes no prisoners. The action is decent, but unfortunately the star is stuck in a tin can for most of it. It’s becoming a modern phenomena that big, reality based action movies (Mile 22, Patriot’s Day, Deepwater Horizon) are struggling to find an audience; Hunter Killer’s straightforward, gung-ho action should pick up a few fans on streaming, with Butler a gruff centre and plenty of entertainment to be drained from the hair-trigger plotline.

Once Upon a Time In… Hollywood 2019 *****

Few films have had as little similarity to expectations as Inglorious Bastards; what was touted as a ‘men on a mission’ movie along the lines of The Dirty Dozen turned out to have a remarkably meandering narrative including one lengthy scene in which characters, never seen before or again, play charades in the cellar of a bar for quite a chunk of time. Quentin Tarantino’s latest film takes a similarly picaresque approach; with two big stars, we assume a buddy comedy/bromance with the Manson family killings lurking somewhere in the background or foreground. That’s not at all what gets delivered, and that’s a good thing; alarm bells rang when Tarantino announced the setting (year, place) or this film, but Charles Manson is only fleetingly depicted and the actual killings are thankfully not within the film’s scope. That’s not to say that Once Upon doesn’t examine in granular detail exactly what Tarantino imagines was going-down between hippies, cults and conservatives in 1969, the film just doesn’t examine them in the way we expect. Instead, we have a rollercoaster ride, one that takes so long to get started that most thrill-seekers will be ready to demand their money back, then accelerates to a surprising climax so vigorous and satisfying the customers are left begging for another go round. As Cliff Booth and Rick Dalton, Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio look older and rather less cool than in previous ventures, but the coolness they embody is earned rather than cosmetic. They knock around a sun-kissed Hollywood, but their lives are less than glamorous; Dalton struggles to remember his lines on set while Booth dutifully repairs his tv antennae. The action slows to a crawl to cover non-events such as Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) going to the cinema, Dalton reading a book while chatting to a child actor, or Booth feeding his dog. But each of these scenes, long, protracted and seemingly meaningless, turn out to imbue the tale with significant value by the final scene, which like Pulp Fiction, carves out a happy ending in the face of an known tragedy. Once Upon a Time In… Hollywood has got the impacted layers of a great film; there’s a thousand minor details to be patiently unpacked, and a unique picture once the jigsaw is finally assembled. Sociologically-aware moments like Booth’s gradual realisation of the manner in which a familiar ranch as been co-opted by hippies have a haunting, original angle on history that’s completely out of tune with the shallow, derivative approach that most film-makers take to their material. If True Romance was a Greatest Hits package, Once Upon a Time…sees a lauded, popular artist finally finding their own unique voice.

The Informer 2020 ****

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Set for a U.S. release in January 2020, The Informer is a tough, old school crime opus that’s been delayed several times, but is well worth the wait. Andrea di Stefano’s thriller is sold on its connections to Sicario and John Wick, but there’s a down-and-dirty feel about the espionage featured here that’s located somewhere bwteen Homeland and John le Carre. Joel Kinnaman plays Peter Koslow, a special ops undercover agent who is embedded in an FBI mission to shake-down drugs elements in the NYC/Polish community. Koslow has a wife (Blade Runner 2049’s Ana de Armas) and kid to protect, so when a routine pick-up of a diplomatic bag full of drugs goes south, Koslow is forced to witness the death of a cop. This brings in interest from the NYPD’s Grens (rapper Common), who is keen to find out how the cop died and who is responsible; Koslow’s handlers (Rosamund Pike and Clive Owens) seek to contain the mess, but Koslow engineers his own passage out via an audacious prison break. Based on the novel Three Seconds by Roslund/Hellstrom, The Informer’s generic title hides a sober, intensely gripping thriller that’s something of an antidote to much of the silver-screen’s childish fare; the fights are brutal and the stakes are high. Look elsewhere for choreography and stunts, because The Informer makes a virtue of feeling like a real-world story. With a well-known cast well used for once, The Informer’s hard-as-nails attitude makes it one of the best thrillers of the year.

The Hustle 2019 ***

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Updating Dirty Rotten Scoundrels/Bedtime Story for the MeToo era sounds like a tricky but interesting proposition; part of the original conceit was the idea of men betting on their ability to seduce women, so the concept is ripe to be revisited. And The Hustle gets things right from the of by casting rebel Wilson and Anne Hathaway, two female performers who can spark a laugh. But The Hustle falls short, and gets diverted from its purpose; There’s a good line near the start when Josephine Chesterfield (Hathaway) suggests to Penny Sharp (Wilson) that most men are easily conned ‘because they can’t believe that a woman might be smarter than them’. That sounds good, but the narrative completely upends that idea by having both of them fall for a man’s confidence trick, exactly what the audience don’t want to see. That said, there’s a few nice moments in the early set-up as Chesterfield encounters, rejects and then mentors the gauche Australian, as they prey on the rich and foolish men who holiday in The French Riviera resort of Beaumont Sur Mer. A set of hotel rooms called Suite Caroline’ gives a flavour of the humour, girlish, silly, but without the whiff of misogamy that makes the previous versions rather unpalatable today. Chris Addison keeps things moving, but plots and sub-plots feel unresolved, and the big laughs never quite materialise despite the game performances. The Hustle did well enough at the box-office, but remaking male films with female leads feels like a lazy answer; can’t women get a chance to establish IP of their own?

Mississippi Grind 2015 ****

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Ryan Reynolds has put his snark to good use as Deadpool; it’s a little frustrating that he’s using the same mannerisms for everything from Detective Pikachu to Fast and Furious, because he can play straight just as well. Similarly, Ben Mendelsohn is a terrific actor who has been typecast as a baddie in Ready Player One, Rogue One and Robin Hood; both of them need to be a bit more creatively cast. Writers and director Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck provide proof of concept that both men have the chops to do great work with Mississippi Grind, a downbeat but hugely impressive character study of who men under the narcotic grip of gambling. Gerry (Mendelsohn) is a poker player who imagines that hanging out with the younger, better-looking Curtis (Reynolds) might change his luck; he’s right in a way, but not the way he imagines. Both men are weak; a key dialogue scene hinges on their willingness to place a bet on something as random as the appearance of the next person to walk into a room. Robert Altman’s California Split was an inspiration, but Mississippi Grind has an energy and a loucheness all of its own; if you’ve only seen these actors paying the rent in blockbusters, it’s something of a revelation to see what they can do in a small-scale drama like this.

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.