Lockdown Movies 181-192, reviewed and rated

Aside from striving towards a goal of watching 202 films in 2020 (see what I did there?), this year I’ve also discovered the writing of Pauline Kael who was a revered and feared US film critic for much of the last century. Unafraid, unapologetic, acerbic (and we haven’t even got to the adjectives that start with a consonant), and one of my new writing heroes to file alongside Kurt Vonnegut, Jack Handey, David Foster Wallace, and dare I admit to it, Woody Allen. But what I really love about her is a sentiment taken from a talk she delivered to some writing students in the 1970s, when she said (and I’m completely paraphrasing here) that the key to good writing is reading. Reading what’s already been wrote, hearing what’s already been spoke and finding your own voice in the din, because while your gargantuan ego will tell you that your amazing ideas are brand new, original observations, thoughts that no one has ever had before, they’re not – they never are. In fact, there’s a chance they’ve been done and re-done, flogged and re-flogged, hashed and re-hashed thousands of times before you came along, only in a different mask or sporting a different font.

This surely applies to so much of what’s going on in the world now too, not just in writing, but everywhere – we’re a lazy arrogant generation (quite rightly, as every generation should be) that assumes we’re the first to recognise and demand progressiveness, the first to tackle gross societal imbalances, the first to question the status quo, the first to put crisps in a sandwich, the first to break the fourth wall. But really, we’re just the first this week, or the first today, or the first in the last two seconds to have these thoughts or those ideas. Only now it’s about getting the packaging right, fitting the moment, making sure it’s on-brand or in tune with collective thinking.

Another reason this resonates with me is because if watching all of these excellent and not-so-excellent movies – some from the 1920s, some from the 2020s – has taught me anything, it’s that the world has always wrestled with the same dilemmas, always grappled with authority, inequality, gender, politics, sex. And always, it seems, ended up with a similar sparsity of definitive answers. I take a strange comfort in that – in how ultimately people have never stopped trying to untangle the same cat’s cradle, always striving to right some wrongs, no matter that we always seem to fall short. I wonder if it’s like the old adage about the journey being better than the getting there? Perhaps the fact that we’re trying to be better is enough, that true progressiveness is found less in hard action and more in good dialogue. Could that be the point of it all? Is that the filmic metaphor I’m reaching for here?

Anyway, enough talk, more critical analysis from a very poor man’s Pauline Kael. Below you’ll find the latest batch of movies, scored on my handy Covid Rating, 19 being fuuuucking amazing, 1 being truly awful.

With this batch in the bank, there’s just ten more to go! Stay tuned.

Beware of a Holy Whore (1971) – a movie about making a movie from Rainer Werner Fassbinder (big meta alert there), this plays a little like a melodramatic Carry On film, but with Sid James slamming his fist into his forearm and shouting PHWOAR at passing schoolkids replaced with intense German sexual longing in hotel bars. And why not? The Cuba Libre is flowing, everyone’s looking fly, the director keeps slapping hysterical women in the face for daring to adore him. For the first half hour I hated it, then I slowly started to love it. A bit.

Covid Rating: 12

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) – seems obvious when you think about it, but with the right selection of films and you can trace an entire human life on camera. Like here, you’ve got Henry Fonda from 1968. Add that to his work in The Lady Eve (1941), 12 Angry Men (1957), then perhaps something like On Golden Pond (1981), and you’ve pretty much time-travelled through a whole adulthood. It’s a curious power to have, isn’t it? Anyway, this is as good as they all say – sweaty, slow, orchestral.

Covid Rating: 15

Manhattan (1979) – the catalyst for a million uber-hip New York comedies. Yes, it comes off a little creepily with Woody Allen dating a schoolgirl – lines like “guess what? I turned 18 the other day – I’m legal but I’m still a kid” are probably not advisable with the current winds blustering about – but even so, it’s such a good film. His best even, beating Crimes and Misdemeanours and Hannah and Her Sisters by a whisker. Fact is, no one can match Woody Allen for blending great stand-up jokes with French New Wave aesthetics, and many many MANY have tried. You’ve probably tried.

Covid Rating: 19

Christine (1983) – a classic car that kills people and only plays 1950s rock and roll from its stereo, John Carpenter’s Christine flies bizarrely under the radar, dented beneath the might of The Shining, or Stand by Me, or Carrie, or Shawshank, as one of the lesser-loved Stephen King adaptations, but it’s as worthy as any of those (even, whisper it, better than a couple of them). The male friendship at the core is touching and believable, and having a car that’s a monster – that’s a lovely premise. Great idea, King.

Covid Rating: 15

East of Eden (1955) – the problem you get with James Dean films, lads, is that while James Dean channels his James Dean intensity, no one else on set can match him for it, they’re just doing their acting job and going home, he’s rocking in the foetal position between takes to stay in character (going method wasn’t in vogue yet). It’s a bit like if Daniel Day Lewis turned up on Eastenders – everyone’s getting drama school tasty down the Queen Vic, he’s gone full Aguirre, the Wrath of God. That said, not a bad film – just need ole JD to dial it down eight thousand notches or so.

Covid Rating: 11

Interiors (1978) – Woody Allen’s attempt to ape Ingmar Bergman, and it’s exactly what it is – a mistake, a misstep, even a misnomer. A film by Woody Allen that definitely isn’t a Woody Allen film. Decent tragedy relies on moments of levity but this is just wall-to-wall depressing, the result of a naturally comedic man trying too hard to be serious.

Covid Rating: 7

Death Proof (2007) – Tarantino’s homage to slasher flicks from the 1970s, if we’re talking in percentage terms here, this is 30 per cent exhilarating (the car chase, the extreme violence), 25 per cent gripping (when Kurt Russell stalks his prey), 25 per cent indulgent (which is fine – it’s Tarantino), 10 per cent boring, and 10 per cent pointless. Slash half an hour from its guts and you suspect there’s a really excellent movie to be watched.

Covid Rating: 13

La Haine (1995) – there was a point in the mid-90s when France really put itself on the map (arf) – there was the rapper MC Solaar signed to Talkin’ Loud records, and La Haine hitting somewhere between Boyz n the Hood and Do the Right Thing, but French. Watching it back now, 25 years later, it’s almost impossibly bleak (but what can you expect from a title which translates directly as Hate?), and the scenes of police brutality feel disturbingly real.

Covid Rating: 13

The Philadelphia Story (1940) – Katherine Hepburn (amazing), James Stewart (amazing), and Cary Grant (amazing) form three points on a love rhombus, with the doofus she’s about to marry being the fourth (John Howard). It’s a faultless rom-com, funny throughout, and romantic enough to elicit a small stream of waterworks at the end. Plus you’ve got a handful of the most impersonated voices in the history of cinema, if you threw Christopher Walken and Frank Spencer in there, you’d be hitting peak Alistair McGowan territory.

Covid Rating: 18

The Apartment (1960) – Jack Lemmon pimps out his Central Park gaff as a place where his bosses can shag their mistresses, ultimately selling his soul to climb the corporate ladder in a morality tale that begins disguised as a screwball comedy. Shirley MacLaine is great as the complex bit of crumpet operating the lifts at work, and Jack Lemmon cements his place as the genius actor he was. SIDE NOTE: I always forget that Shirley MacLaine is Warren Beatty’s big sister. But she is. Isn’t life weird?

Covid Rating: 16

Vertigo (1958) – do you need me to tell you that Vertigo is any good? Probably not. But I will, because bizarrely enough it was roundly despised when it came out, garnering mostly dreadful reviews, which Hitchcock put down to Jimmy Stewart looking too grandfatherly to be romancing the beautiful 25-year-old, Kim Novak. But once you get past that (after roughly a nanosecond – it’s an older man, a hot woman, it’s Hollywood) what you find is a really off-kilter, truly strange thriller, with a twist about two thirds in that makes you feel like you’re in on the con. I genuinely shivered and got goosebumps at the end which has never happened before. With a film.

Covid Rating: 18

Evil Dead II (1987) – the ultimate video nasty, pure relentless cartoon gore with jokes. “Who’s laughing now??” shouts a deranged Bruce Campbell as he chops his own hand off. You imagine that on a gigantic screen, couple of beers sloshing around in your stomach, this’d be the very definition of a great time.

Covid Rating: 13

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