Too Old to Die Young (2019)

“I think I might have to kill her, man”

Refn’s commitment to his own muse, his own metronome, his own fetishes and indulgences across this sprawling, neon-mirror LA canvas is, if nothing else, incredibly inspiring. Submerging myself into Too Old to Die Young over the past few days has been such a trippy, challenging, exhilarating experience. On multiple occasions it had me ruminating on the basic rules and requirements of narrative and aesthetic storytelling. The stranger and more singular it became, the more in awe I was of its stubborn desire to be nothing other than what it wanted to be.

Sometimes a piece of work transcends being merely “good” or “bad” just by being so intensely its own thing at all costs, by any means necessary. How can you quantify if a scene goes on too long, if a narrative thread is unnecessary or if a performance is too minimal or too over the top if every single one of those creative choices is exactly as intended? Nothing here is a mistake, everything is a decision that was absolutely seen through to the end. That’s something you don’t see very often, least of all on this scale. This isn’t entertainment. It is genre, maximised and minimised. Glacial. Shocking. Moving images staged as still life photography. An exorcism of ideas, visual and otherwise, from the imagination that dreamed it up. Lurid, sexual, cruel and grotesquely funny. This is art for art’s sake. My favourite thing of 2019 so far.

Watched on Amazon Prime

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Violent Saturday (1955)

Very impressed with how this interweaves a portrait of small town melodrama with a brewing heist picture. The structure is incredibly clear, deliberate and simple but once all the loose threads converge in the final act, it’s no less satisfying. Warranting comparisons to anything from The Killing to Reservoir Dogs, this is another tough-as-asphalt crime pic punctuated by some brutal violence though it is all offset by a lot of unexpected, compassionate character moments. I can honestly say I enjoyed the bits of the cuckolded husband drowning his sorrows in the local diner as much as the tough guys hunched over their bank robbery blueprints in a shadowy motel. I love genre movies that can be this direct and complex. It’s pretty staggering to consider how many diverse, flat-out fantastic movies Richard Fleischer made without ever achieving auteur status.

Watched on Eureka blu-ray

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Winter’s Child (1989)

A little too soap opera-ish for my liking – cheating boyfriends, abandoned children, unrequited love etc. – but Assayas nevertheless stages it all with a confidence and simplicity that keeps it engaging and puts the performances front and centre. Everyone puts good work in, just the point it arrives at and the journey it takes to get there feels done to death.

Watched on Arrow blu-ray

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Disorder (1986)

Assayas’ feel for this era and his fondness for the music activates every deliberate frame. The steely, blue-tinged photography makes the whole thing feel metallic and cold yet the performances, notably that of the actresses, gives it a pulse. Quite a terrific debut from Assayas which favours character over plot, which is even more admirable given that the film opens with a failed robbery-cum-murder. The best Joy Division movie ever made.

Watched on Arrow Academy blu-ray

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Trapped Alive (1988)

One of those 80’s slasher Frankensteins which feels like a montage of scenes from other movies, just re-cast and re-shot for a quick VHS payout. Still, there’s enough disjointed what-the-fuckery to make it a worthy film of its kind, now complete with the Arrow Video stamp of approval no less. The softcore adultery subplot is as random as it sounds and the mine setting, lit and presented as an impressive display of set-design efforts and not a believable, actual mine, has its charms. The fact Trapped Alive finds an excuse for every actress, two of which are trapped in a fucking mine with rapey escaped convicts and and a cave-dwelling cannibal, to strip down to their underwear is, if nothing else, an admirable commitment to genre requirements, not to mention a hilarious narrative contrivance.

Watched on Arrow blu-ray

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Track 29 (1988)

One of Roeg’s greatest gifts, and also, occasionally, his crux, is how he can make even simplicity seem complex. The story and goings on of Track 29 would barely fill a paragraph in a standard film review when broken down into a synopsis, yet Roeg, true to form, fractures the whole thing into countless images, contradictions, repetitions and illusions. All his movies feel like moments reflected in shards of shattered glass and this one is no different. Basically a twisted oedipal story backdropped by Reagan-era Americana, the whole thing is complicated by Roeg’s technique turning it into a head-stew of forbidden kink, furious domestic displacement and, ultimately, deranged violence.

Gary Oldman’s performance, arriving early in the actor’s career when everything he did was dangerously unpredictable, is certainly startling. He literally arrives in the movie screaming his head off and – no spoilers – given the nature of his character he has to allow for a lot of interpretation. Childlike, sexual, otherworldly, aggressive and innocent all at once, it’s a very tricky tightrope to walk. I’m a big Gary Oldman fan but I found his performance perhaps a bit too conceptual for my liking. Luckily that’s not all there is as regular Roeg MVP Theresa Russell goes all-out, as expected, while an unexpected turn from Christopher Lloyd works as an effective reminder that the guy actually did play characters other than Doc Brown in the 80s. Colleen Camp also pops up in the obligatory best friend part but instills enough spunk – and spandex – to make it memorable.

When it all comes down to it though, this is Roeg’s film first and foremost. It’s a little more heightened, less grubby, than the films that preceded it, instead playing like a darkly twisted takedown of American values that is littered with childlike totems and signifiers wielded for sinister intent – an elaborate train set destroyed, Zabriskie Point-style and a fair ground tainted by sexual assault. As a canvas of Roeg’s concerns and artistic fervour in 1988, the film works albeit in more of a minor key, but taken out of context of his surrounding filmography the film would no doubt feel sleight and puzzling to casual viewers. Or maybe its radical impulses would be more impressive?

As a long-time lover of Roeg, seeing every film in his back-catalogue has been a goal of mine for a while but availability of certain titles has meant the journey has been slower than I’d like. My obsession with Gary Oldman and Handmade Films has also meant Track 29 has been high on my blind-spots for other reasons, so I’m especially grateful for Indicator’s lush edition that let me experience it in style.

Watched on Indicator blu-ray

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Detour (1945)

A seminal fleapit noir that feels like it was found in an ashtray among cigarette stubs smeared with lipstick stains. Lots of textbook frugal mastery here with an excess of voice over, shaky opticals, rear projection – basically every trick in the damn book – utilised to get this story told as cheaply as possible. It’s no wonder Roger Corman shows up in the extras on the Criterion disc. For all its rough edges, Ulmer achieves an aesthetic to die for. Dreamy and strange one minute, nihilistic and brutal the next, with the entire noir framework totally stripped down to its bare essentials like a skeleton, with the terrific hardbitten wordplay there to keep the teeth chattering.

There’s so much evocative imagery and location work on display: the swirling smoke, the dingy diners, the fateful drive to Hollywood, even the leaps in continuity work in favour of the film’s disquieting nightmare logic. At one point a convertible is stuck in a hellish downpour and the hood is stuck down, an image which doubles up as the perfect summation of the film’s doomed protagonist, Al Roberts, who seems trapped in a purgatorial cycle of bad decisions, cruel coincidence and punishing fate. Or maybe that narration really is unreliable and the film is little more than the pathetic ramblings of a twisted psychopath trying to justify his sick actions. Detour also features one of the greatest femme fatales ever spat onto the screen, vividly vitalised by Ann Savage who completely lives up to the promise of her name. This one really has it all, nasty, seedy and sexy in equal doses. Best watched after hours. Also wouldn’t feel out of place in a double bill with Carnival of Souls.

Watched on Criterion blu-ray

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Poltergeist (1982)

I didn’t think much to Poltergeist when I first saw it a few years back. I figured I’d simply arrived too late for its imagery and shock-tactics to have full impact. The fact it was awkwardly stuck between the two extremes of Spielberg and Hooper’s respective sensibilities didn’t help matters much either. It felt like a strangely anonymous product, despite the abundance of aesthetic personality – little more than a promise of charming 80s effects showcase which, granted, it did at least deliver on.

Coming back to it, however, I was struck by the family unit, how well cast they are and believable their neuroses seem. Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams getting high and goofing around in their bedroom one evening is a wonderful scene, more progressive than you’d expect from Spielberg (has anyone ever taken drugs in one of his movies??) but also more heartwarming than you’d get were it strictly Hooper’s POV. The film is full of moments like that, actorly flourishes or just instances of alchemy that occur when you cast all the parts correctly and their personalities enhance one another. It’s funny, but some of the domestic scenes almost feel Altman-esque, probably due to the shaggy-dog nature of the faces on screen which in itself is a minor casting triumph. As a portrait of a family-unit within genre, this one really sits near the top of the pile.

Tracking the timeline, I also realised just how much supernatural spook imagery and horror gags originate from Poltergeist, a fact I overlooked the first time around. Just think how ingrained flickering TV static has become within the genre, as well as burial grounds and haunted closets/bedrooms. This even pre-dates Nightmare on Elm Street‘s room-on-a-gimble gag. While, yes, you can no doubt find earlier examples of all of the above, Poltergeist bottled it all in a really classy mainstream package with the budget required to really make it sing. This also nestles sweetly in Spielberg’s own gross-out phase – the melting dudes and endless blood splatter of Raiders and the heart-ripping, kid-whipping of Temple of Doom – meaning the shocks and sense of terror is pretty aggressive, which Hooper was the ideal vessel for.

This was a crucial revisit. Poltergeist has gone from being a movie I had little feeling for to being one I found a lot to love in. The clashing creative forces that I once saw as a negative I actually really appreciate now. Much more of a character study than I initially gave it credit for and a crucial genre touchstone that rightfully penetrated the pop-culture for a long time. Might go in for the sequels now because why not?

Watched on blu-ray

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Out of Blue (2019)

An initially perplexing mind-meld of pulp genre and heady concepts that eventually coalesces into something truly unique. I’m a big fan of Carol Morley’s previous two films, Dreams of Life and The Falling, and this continues her notion of attacking both genre and reality with the same psyche-soaked filmmaking impulses. It’s not often you find a piece of hard boiled detective fiction that concerns itself with black holes as well as bullet holes. Morley challenges gender norms and genre norms on the same eclectic canvas. By the end, even the imagery itself spins off into the cosmos. It’s a struggle to stay tuned in for the whole thing, but you can’t deny that this aspires to be, and frequently is, an off-key wonder.

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The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion (1970)

A textbook Ernesto Gastaldi-penned, pre-Argento giallo being that it is far more interested in mystery, intrigue and eroticism than poking your eyeballs out with visceral murder set-pieces. It’s still somewhat kinky though, with lead beauty Dagmar Lassander getting embroiled with a blackmailer who demands her body as payment resulting in some conflicted lusting on her part. Morricone’s evocative score goes a long way to heighten this into a class of its own and the scope photography, enriched by inky blacks, primary colours and hazy lighting, is luxurious too.

Director Luciano Ercoli would go on to make a pair of solid post-Argento gialli in the shape of Death Walks In High Heels (good) and Death Walks at Midnight (great), both also written by Gastaldi and starring Nieves Navarro aka Susan Scott who features here, stealing practically every scene with her assertive femme dominance. Her relationship with Lassander is a real highlight given that the male leads, while typically roguish, are mostly a bore. As they are often lumped together into an unofficial trilogy, the three Ercoli/Navarro gialli certainly paint a vivd picture of the genre in all its modes. Forbidden Photos is the most restrained of the three but is nevertheless a classy warm-up for those nastier, more acid-tinged whodunnits that would follow.

Watched on Arrow blu-ray

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