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To Live and Die in L.A. (1985)

To Live and Die in L.A., William Friedkin. Recently “re-discovered” and a major influence on 2011’s outstanding action film Drive, TLADILA was a late-night cable staple when I was in my late teens…minus the nudity and vulgarity. Some think it’s cheesy. What it really offers is the last gasp of a 1970s mainstream action style that combined grit with art-house level editing and cinematography, here in full-force with Robby Muller’s exhilarating camera work and M. Scott Smith’s seat-of-the-pants cutting. The same script in the hands of other action directors of the era, like Richard Donner, would simply have been a Lethal Weapon (1987) manqué. Friedkin shows his chops by combining 1980s slickness (such as the electro-pop soundtrack by Wang Chung) with 1970s gravitas. It gives the film an edge that still makes it compelling viewing. Pop-culture bonus: The British nanny from Fraser plays a lesbian slut.

Check out the 1980s cocaine and bourbon editing of the trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I5JI_RclmIg

And the awesome soundtrack: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tItxr8cY8Gc

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Atlantic City (1980)

Atlantic City. Louis Malle’s best English-language picture and Burt Lancaster’s most masterful performance; toss in a young Susan Sarandon and you’ve got a trifecta of powerful personalities who can drive the picture, but the real star is in the title. Pre-Trump and post-Boardwalk Empire-era, the Atlantic City of the 1980s was a run-down dump in the process of being demolished: a condition that DP Richard Ciupka lovingly captures as an objective correlative to the dead-beat, has-been, two-bit characters that populate the story. The cinematography is poetic, the action blasé: the real plot takes place inside the main characters whom we never for a moment stop feeling empathy and compassion. Given the despair, decay, and demolition surrounding them, this is a major achievement.

Ken Park (2002)

Ken Park, Larry Clark. A beautifully produced, controversial film that uses unconventional narrative techniques to portray ennui and existential bleakness? Sounds just like the kind of film DrG’s Random, Inconsistent, and Unqualified Recommendations would recommend!

It was acclaimed poet Philip Larkin who wrote “They fuck you up, your mum and dad” and in Larry Clark’s follow-up to his much more acclaimed 1995 film Kids, he illustrates this contention ad nauseam. Whereas the first film follows a group of disaffected teens as they traverse the urban jungle of Manhattan, taking drugs and screwing each other haphazardly along the way, Ken Park portrays a group of disaffected teens in the rigid box-like architecture of suburban California. To hammer home his point, the opening sequence follows a soon-to-suicide teen as he skateboards through town (real world Visalia), passing sign after sign with the word “community” on it. We soon learn how ironic that word is for the kids in the film.

The group of friends is introduced in their separate lives, each one coming from a working class home fraught with sexual tensions that most audience members will find so distasteful they’ll switch off fast. From one child in need of a mommy who becomes the sexual toy of his girlfriend’s mom (a MILF avant lettre) to a boy who practices auto-erotic asphyxiation to another boy whose beauty confuses the sexuality of his bully father…each one of these kids is in a sealed chamber of their own hell.

Shot on location in glowing 35mm on a $1.3m budget, the sound design is phenomenal. It seamlessly captures the actual sounds of Californian suburbia I recall from my youth: single prop private planes buzzing overhead; a lawnmower on the next block, heard but not seen; the clack of skateboards on asphalt; the droning of insects outside the window. It’s a perfect evocation of the landscape.

When finally at the end of the film we see the three teens left standing coming together (literally), it’s a fully nude threesome shot using classic porn angles. The actors are young, the sex is not (apparently always) simulated—more than one critic has dismissed Clark’s work as kiddie porn in an artistic wrapper.

It takes a lot to disturb people in the wired 21st century, but Clark found a way to do it: by graphically illustrating the quiet atrocities happening under the fake Spanish shingle roofs of suburban America. What he puts on screen is as in-your-face as possible…it would be punk if it weren’t so philosophical.

Here’s the NSFW trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=19y271n9kPI

Bitter Moon (1992)

Bitter Moon, Roman Polanski. Soitenly the most Polanski of Polanski’s films. The narrative explores the thin lines that separate love and cruelty, sex and perversion, lust and romance, dedication and manipulation. The visual style is all pumpkin heads and deep focus close-ups, which creates a claustrophobic atmosphere in which the sweaty shenanigans of the main characters become inescapable, then inexorable, if unforgivable. Most of the action takes place either in Paris (in flashback) or on a cruise ship: the visual style renders the city as claustrophobic as the boat: both locations are where the often ugly desires lurking beneath dreams take the place of the dreams themselves. The lead actors embody the characters perfectly: It is the role the smart yet smarmy Peter Coyote was born to play, while Emmanuelle Seigner smoothly moves from ingénue to sexpert to damaged woman to brutal nurse while remaining believable as each.

Here’s the French trailer, with nipples…

Baby Doll (1956)

Baby Doll. Elia Kazan. Oh man, this film is as close to perfect as it gets. The script, the acting, the location, the set design, the cinematography, the editing, the pacing, the music, the soundtrack, even the fricking title sequence…nothing goes wrong. That the bar was set so high so long ago is one reason (but no excuse) for how much total crap has come since.

Perfectly cast Karl Malden and Eli Wallach square off over blonde teenage sex bomb Caroll Baker in this Tennessee Williams penned drama in which no one is without sin. Baker’s 17-year old baby doll sleeps in a flimsy sheer white nightie in a crib, sucking her thumb, while her husband—who can’t screw her by agreement with her father until she turns 18—peeps through a hole in the wall. That obscure object of desire, indeed.

The set is so exquisite it makes my head spin. Adapted from a one-act play, most of the movie takes place in and around a single location, a real-life tumble-down antebellum pile that looks like a cross from the big house from Giant (1956) and the haunted mansion ride at Disneyland. Surreal yet vivid, it’s the kind of place Mink Snopes would hide a body.

Karl Malden, sweating, hair thinning, buffoonish yet menacing while bellowing impotently, is so convincing that it’s easy to forget he’s acting.

But it’s Eli Wallach’s movie. It’s his on-screen debut and he steals the show so completely it might be the only flaw in the production. But what a flaw it is! Wallach shifts from slick debonair to wildcat crazy to bedroom farce comedian to suave womanizer to rapacious businessman so effortlessly, the incredible talent and skill goes almost unnoticed. For people who only know him as gold-toothed Tuco from The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (1966), his acting here is revelatory.

The framing is fantastic. Each shot is composed like a painting, utilizing negative space as a means of commenting on the relationship between characters.

I could go on with further praise, but the proof is in the viewing. See this and realize what film can do when it’s put in the right hands. Pop culture bonus: Rip Torn’s minor yet noteworthy first appearance on-screen!

 

A Shock to the System (1990)

A Shock to the System, Jan Egleson. This one slipped off the pop culture radar and little wonder: a British leading man beating the American corporate system at its own game was always going to be a hard sell in the States. It’s not shot as a dark comedy nor is it a thriller in any real sense of the genre. It is, however, a well plotted, well acted, well lensed, well edited middle-age angst movie in which the anti-hero wins. Michael Caine does his thing and does it well (not as somnolent as in Hannah and her Sisters [’86] nor as slapstick as in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels [’88]), giving some sympathy to a character who is, at the end of the day, just a callow shallow materialistic sexist pig who refers to himself in the third person as “he” and thinks he’s heir to Merlin. Oh, and he’s also a murderer. It’s that last bit that allows him to regain the magic that the aging process has taken away. It wouldn’t be until three years later when Michael Douglas would find a bag of machine guns in Falling Down that a middle-age white-guy would rediscover his mojo by turning violent…but at the end of that story, he gets his comeuppance by getting shot to death. What Egleson gives us instead is the anti-hero as success story.

Why watch this one? The pacing. The story unfolds in a modular construction that is articulated by the amazing soundtrack, modern art music performed by the Turtle Island Quartet (http://turtleislandquartet.com/our-story/). The suspense is built in angular lines of disconformity that keeps the story riveting even if the main character is thoroughly dislikable. Plus Caine is in top form and obviously enjoying himself.

Pop culture bonus: blink and you’ll miss him: young Samuel L. Jackson as leader of a three-card monte game.

The Last Seduction (1994)

The Last Seduction, John Dahl. It’s Linda Fiorentino’s world, we only live in it. The hot chick from the first Men in Black flick takes on the role she was born to play (maybe that’s why she hasn’t worked much since). Sexy, mean, with a rangy body that she uses like a weapon, Fiorentino is the embodiment of the femme fatale in Dahl’s update of classic noir. She double-crosses her doctor husband (Bill Pullman, excellent as always) after he sells pharmaceutical cocaine to street thugs—then beats it upstate with the bag of cash. Hiding out in Hicksville proves dull so she takes on a local stud as a boy toy while husband sends a private dick to find her. Eventually all the men become her puppets. The film doesn’t pull many punches: at one point she uses overt racism to take out a human obstacle (“Is it true what they say about black guys?” she asks to get him out of his seat belt); the violence is off-screen but in your head, psychic and cruel. If it were in black and white, it could come straight from the early 1950s: Dahl’s color vision of (fairly recent) modern living updates the hard-bitten soul of noir without sacrificing any style.

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