The Other Side of the Wind (2018)

A bizarre miracle of restoration and a dizzying, bleary-eyed display of Welles’ effortlessly radical technique, quite unlike anything else he attempted. Turns out he was one hell of a 70s filmmaker.

This is a proper full-meal for cinephiles, absolutely punch-drunk with striking imagery and illusory editing as well as featuring an onslaught of on-camera appearances from New Hollywood royalty, which includes but isn’t limited to: Peter Bogdanovich, Dennis Hopper, Susan Strasberg, Mercedes McCambridge, Curtis Harrington, Claude Chabrol and Paul Mazursky. John Huston lords over the entire party with a down-beaten machismo that is sure to enter the ranks of great unexpected performances now that it has been finally resurrected. The real star though, of-course, is Welles himself. While his authorship of The Other Side of the Wind can be endlessly debated given the nature of its completion at the hands of others, it is nevertheless a virtuoso filmmaking performance, and one which left me awestruck. It is Welles reminding everyone from beyond the grave that he will always be cinema’s greatest magician. The film’s final lines, which double up as the last lines of Welles’ oeuvre essentially, are hard to beat. I can’t get them out of my head.

Only in time will we see how important this movie is in the long run, but on a personal level – as a Welles nut and as someone who has read about The Other Side of the Wind for as long as I can remember, only ever dreaming to see it one day – this is one of the most important movies released in my lifetime. It’s a gift.

(And I watched it on fucking Netflix!)

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The Meg (2018)

While basic, The Meg is still a lot more fun and entertaining than the reviews led me to believe. Perhaps not the exact movie we were all hoping for from the concept or trailers (the shark is not big enough to eat a cruise ship sadly) but as far as the Jason Stathan vs. A Big Damn Shark genre goes, it’s a fine start. I don’t mean fine as in “fine wine” I mean it fine as in “meh, it’s fine“. Like a 5/10 fish finger sandwich. This is also shot by Eastwood’s regular DOP Tom Stern, and it has a certain washed out, flat and un-dynamic digital look I find really ugly (see also 15:17 to Paris, or not because that movie is really bad). He did much better work with celluloid. I wish this was shot on 70mm in the actual sea with a practical shark and given a roadshow release is what I’m trying to say.

A few things worth mentioning:
– The Fin title card was a fucking masterstroke of gag placement.
– If you’re a dog called Pippin and find yourself in a shark movie, GTFO.
– I really hope this was a smash hit in China because they were clearly trying really hard!
– I was going to make a Life Aquatic with Jason Statham gag but somebody already did it.

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Combat Shock (1986)

This grimy mutant lovechild of Taxi Driver and Eraserhead is undoubtedly one of the skuzziest movies I’ve ever sat through. Buddy Gionvinazzo’s Combat Shock (or American Nightmares to give it its original title, and the title that appeared on the Director’s Cut I watched) is sometimes just content to watch its lead character, frazzled and greasy Vietnam vet Frankie (Rick Giovinazzo), aimlessly wander the streets to the oddly bouncy electronic score (also by Rick Giovinazzo), but the rest of the time it’s happier squeezing him through an endless ringer of PTSD, torment and misfortune.

Unfolding over just one day but punctuated by hyper-real and hyper-violent wartime flashbacks, this a grim and punishing endurance test. Not because of disturbing violence or gore, but because of the constantly unpleasant headspace it occupies; an overbearing atmosphere smeared over the entire thing like thick grease. When proceedings do finally take a turn for the bloody, it feels like a relief rather than a descent.

Shot on a scrappy budget over a multi-year period, the film was eventually picked up by schlock-house Troma, given a hasty re-edit and released as a Rambo-esque action flick. But this might be the most thoughtful movie Troma ever acquired. Certainly in Giovinazzo’s director’s cut the feat of smuggling an ugly character-study into 42nd street theatres under the trojan-horse of genre is even more devilish. It forces a certain type of audience to suddenly confront and engage with an America they’d rather ignore and escape from. Imagine rabid fans of lurid delights slipping into this thing expecting a good time. Newsflash: they weren’t going to get it.

Full of rough edges, unshapely editing and narrative structuring which plagues most low-budget independent productions, Gionvinazzo nevertheless proves to be incredibly resourceful and inventive with his limitations. The characters all register and there are odd digressions and instances of detail (a man stood in a welfare line with the arm of a mannequin in his pocket, for instance) or cheap rubbery special effects (I didn’t mention it before, but there actually is a mutant baby here), and shaky set design which all manage to enhance the film’s skewed and doomy personality, constantly on the verge of mental collapse.

For all of its ugliness, Combat Shock feels like a barbed blast of frustrated artistic expression, depicting the unfortunate downfall of an angry and helpless protagonist who has no choice but to eventually decorate the kitchen wall with his own brains. Gionvinazzo’s film resembles a wet mass of matter, a sludgy mound held together by scraps of 16mm celluloid. It is the dirt under your fingernails, the stench of a bad day. A nasty and sour movie, but grippingly so.

Watched on Severin blu-ray.

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Thunder Road (2018)

I was a big fan of the original short this is based on so I’m very happy to report that Jim Cummings lives up to the promise of those initial twelve minutes and then some. A perfectly pitched cringe comedy featuring some excellent visual staging and delightfully odd character observations. Essentially an ever-escalating collection of unfortunate episodes happening to, or because of the lead character, it modulates from broad comedy to heartfelt fuck-uppery with a lovely simplicity and confidence. I really like Cummings as an actor too – the bold choices he makes and also when he reigns it in. Really strong work. Considering he wrote, directed and starred in this thing, on top of stubbornly willing it into existence as the key originator, he’s one hell of a creative threat. Can’t wait to see what comes next.

Watched on iTunes.

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Candyman (1992)

This is a far more grotesque and elegantly told work than I initially gave it credit for. For as much as we recognise Candyman as part of the Clive Barker canon, it’s actually writer/director Bernard Rose who’s responsible for the film’s most striking innovations. The race angle, Candyman’s back story and American setting are all inventions of Rose’s adaptation. Just the whole way this is shot and controlled is really classy – ranging from beautifully lit close-ups and disorientating overhead camerawork (shout out to DOP Anthony B. Richmond, who also lensed movies for Nic Roeg). The Philip Glass score is the cherry on top but in itself no small feat. How many filmmakers could convince a composer of Philip Glass’ stature to score a movie called fucking Candyman?

I think Virginia Madsen gives a terrific, visceral performance and she navigates the film’s twisty, un-predictable plotting with perfectly calibrated emoting. Some of the film’s most upsetting imagery stems from scenes most horror filmmakers wouldn’t dwell on, such as Helen being forced to undress out of her blood-soaked clothes at the police station, trembling from shock and confusion. The domestic subplot between her and Xander Berkeley – usually the least interesting and most unwanted elements in a movie like this – also has unexpected resonance and a satisfyingly silly pay-off. Again, Madsen sells it all.

Enjoyed this so much more upon rewatch. A horror film with real, fascinating issues on its mind that also contains a gamut of genuinely distressing imagery and visual ideas, as well as a desire to push genre into unexpected territory. Definitely going to voyage into the sequels now.

Watched on Arrow blu-ray.

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Night Moves (1975)

“I think people are shitty and you’re okay”

A wonderfully grizzled PI dirge from the heart of the 70s, Night Moves is my favourite Arthur Penn I’ve seen so far. It’s a movie in which Gene Hackman seems to embody every damn inch of the decade and genre he’s slap-bang in the middle of. A film full of character, characters and laid back intimacy with an undercurrent of sleaze and existential anxiety bubbling beneath. One hell of a find.

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The Canyons (2013)

Paul Schrader and Bret Easton Ellis’ Lifestyles of the Rich and Dangerous.

An underrated and frequently misunderstood exercise in surfaces and cosmetics. The Canyons feels like an episode of an LA reality TV show as seen through a shattered black mirror. Everything looks glacial: overlit and severe digital photography, locations frost-bitten with reflective surfaces – glass and mirrors at every turn – and actors cherry-picked from industries or controversies where looks and celebrity are the primary currency. It all feels so hollow, from the way the voices echo in Christian’s vacuous LA house to the empty silences in conversations on dinner dates or Hollywood boulevard. Notice how Schrader lets the sounds of the busy street or surrounding hustle bustle fill those silences to further enhance the void.

The performances too are pitched at a distance, at an odd disconnect. They’re intentionally performative, like performances found in porn movies or reality TV: actors trying to forge a believable human connection before something more visceral can take place – violence, sex, confrontation. From the casting choices, it’s clear that all of this is especially calculated. Schrader embraces the baggage that comes with Lindsay Lohan – an actress perceived to be broken and twisted by celebrity – and gives her a role in which to prove herself. Watching her performance is like watching a plastic doll find a pulse and break free of being a possession. She’s excellent. James Deen, while certainly a lesser actor, is used to effectively too, as the typically Bret Easton Ellis-esque trust-fund fuck-boy turned preening psychopath.

At one point Lohan’s Tara asks a movie producer, “Do you really like movies?” When the producer fails to recollect the last movie they went to see at the cinema, Schrader’s pointed montage of desolate and abandoned movie theatres at the film’s start suddenly comes into focus. Mirrors and surfaces have finally replaced the movie screen.

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