Friday 19 July 2024

For what it's worth...

UK box office Top Ten (for the weekend of July 12-14, 2024):

1 (new) Despicable Me 4 (U)
2 (1) Inside Out 2 (U) ****
3 (new) Longlegs (15) **
4 (new) Fly Me to the Moon (12A)
5 (2) A Quiet Place: Day One (15) ***
6 (new) Indian 2 (15)
7 (3) Bad Boys: Ride or Die (15)
8 (5) The Bikeriders (15)
9 (4) MaXXXine (18) **
10 (new) In a Violent Nature (18)

(source: BFI)

My top five:
1. Forrest Gump

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (new) Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes (12)
2 (3) Civil War (15) ***
3 (2) Furiosa: a Mad Max Saga (15) ****
4 (1) Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire (12)
5 (5) Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire (12)
6 (7) Anyone but You (15)
7 (8) Dune: Part Two (12) **
8 (6) Kung Fu Panda 4 (PG)
9 (4) Back to Black (15)
10 (re) Abigail (18) ****

My top five: 
1. Abigail

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. The Fugitive [above] (Friday, Channel 5, 10pm)
2. Photograph (Saturday, BBC2, 1.25am)
3. Chariots of Fire (Sunday, BBC2, 1pm) 
4. The Wooden Horse (Saturday, BBC2, 10.20am)
5. The Hurt Locker (Sunday, BBC2, 10.55pm)

In memoriam: Bill Cobbs (Telegraph 16/07/24)

Bill Cobbs
, who has died aged 90, was an American character actor whose fifty-year career encompassed blaxploitation, major hits like The Bodyguard (1992), primetime sitcoms and HBO drama, chancy independent features, and – in the case of Moses in the Coens’ fantasia The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) – playing a custodian of the universe, ensuring everything within his jurisdiction ran like clockwork.

Such symbolic roles came frequently to Cobbs, as an upright six-footer blessed with a reflective mien and rich, mellifluous voice. Moses introduces himself with the line “I ‘spect Moses knows just about everything”, and the Coens weren’t the only filmmakers who sensed in Cobbs a deep reservoir of wisdom.

That was partly attributable to years in the wilderness. Cobbs made his screen debut well into his thirties, having worked as an Air Force radar technician and car salesman. Only in 1970, aged 36, did he leave his native Cleveland for New York; even then, he found himself having to support his theatrical aspirations by driving cabs and selling toys.

This palpable inner history informed terrific supporting turns as the jazz pianist Del Paxton in Tom Hanks’ genial directorial debut That Thing You Do! (1996), and as a bluesman expressing a distaste for folk in A Mighty Wind (2003); it also bolstered Star Trek lore once Cobbs was cast as Dr. Emory Erickson, creator of the transporter that beamed up Kirk and co., in the TV spin-off Enterprise (2001-05).

Yet his specialty was altogether earthbound, working men: a bartender sassing the newly flush Eddie Murphy in Trading Places (1983), the disgruntled security guard Reginald in Night at the Museum (2006) and its sequels. “I liked entertaining,” Cobbs told one interviewer, “but I was always drawn to some kind of technical work, some kind of honest labour.”

He was born Wilbert Francisco Cobbs on June 16, 1934, one of two sons to Cleveland construction worker David Cobbs and his wife Vera (née Foster). An early encounter with The Wizard of Oz (1939) set him on his course: “It impressed me with the idea that you already have the things in life that you are looking for. You have great capabilities within yourself, and you just need to be made aware of that."

After graduating from East Tech High School and leaving the Air Force, he began acting at Cleveland’s Karamu House Theater, a bedrock of Black theatre – in a broadly unsegregated city – which had nurtured Langston Hughes in the 1930s. Yet Cobbs admitted he was drawn there by pure chance: “I was doing a favour for a customer. I had sold this guy a car, and he asked me if I’d like to be in a play.” 

He joined New York’s Negro Ensemble Company in 1971, before making a fleeting screen debut (as “Man on Platform”) in The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974). There were only just more lines in poolhall drama The Color of Money (1986) and Clint Eastwood’s Charlie Parker biopic Bird (1988). That same year, he played the serene chauffeur Hoke on stage in Alfred Uhry’s Driving Miss Daisy – and then watched Morgan Freeman motor off with the role in the Oscar-winning movie.

Yet in the Nineties, Cobbs landed roles with greater impact: toppling Wesley Snipes’ kingpin Nino Brown in New Jack City (1991), reframing gentrification as a horror story in Wes Craven’s The People Under the Stairs (1991). He was Whitney Houston’s manager Delaney in The Bodyguard; an LAPD elder, again tailing Snipes, in Demolition Man (1993); and Coach Chaney in Air Bud (1997), a Disney flick about a basketball-playing golden retriever that spawned an unlikely franchise.

A stroke in 1998 briefly stalled this late-career progress, but Cobbs resurfaced in quality TV, his credentials ever more impeccable: as a pastor in The Sopranos (2000), guesting on Six Feet Under (2001) and The West Wing (2002). He was another priest in Robert Duvall’s Get Low (2009), and – bringing his artistic life full circle – a Resistance leader in Sam Raimi’s Oz the Great and Powerful (2013).

In the streaming era, Cobbs earned a belated Emmy nomination as friendly neighbour Mr. Hendrickson in Dino Dana (2017-20); seemingly tireless, he also appeared in the finale of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D (2020) as “Old Man”, a veteran of the ongoing intergalactic struggle between good and evil.

It was a long way from one of his earliest stage roles, in a 1969 revival of Ossie Davis’s Purlie Victorious: “That play taught me there were a lot of things I could say […] that were very important, that were meaningful things in addition to entertaining… Art is somewhat of a prayer, isn’t it?”

He is survived by his brother Thomas.

Bill Cobbs, born June 16, 1934, died June 25, 2024.

Thursday 18 July 2024

The wind rises: "Twisters"

Hollywood's blowback summer continues.
Twisters is a sequel we might have expected to see some time between 1997 and 1999, in the immediate wake of the $500m success of 1996's original Twister. That film - co-written by Michael Crichton, exec-produced by Steven Spielberg and directed by Speed's Jan de Bont - was one of Amblin's post-Jurassic blockbusters, designed to wow us anew with the growing sophistication of digital technology. (We can do T-rex scaled weather now.) It's been a while, then, but if there's one thing the studios know and know what to do with, it's hot air, and Twisters duly gives full, destructive physical shape and heft to what a film like the Fall Guy movie was constructed from and sold on. This being a 2024 variation, there is no inclination to pander to those adults who've abandoned the cinema in favour of the couch: the new film's stormchasers aren't the down-home grown-ups who populated the original (Helen Hunt, Bill Paxton, Alan Ruck, Jami Gertz), rather perky kids who barely look qualified to be operating a Bunsen burner. Representing Team Science (Magnus Pyke voice: science!): meteorologists Daisy Edgar-Jones and Anthony Ramos, striving to scan tornadoes using new, military-grade equipment, so as to predict their movements and mitigate against future destruction. Representing the thrillseekers among us: Glen Powell (a.k.a. Pin-Up Limmy) and his shit-eating grin, who rocks up in Storm Alley blasting "Ghost Riders in the Sky", aiming for hits on his YouTube channel much as the movie wants bums on seats.

Right through to the country-inflected Hot 100 contender plastered over the closing credits, that movie is a blockbuster built the way blockbusters used to be: pure formula, in its essence, but an abiding, pleasurable one, confidently executed and delivered. (If Twisters whips up a storm at the box office in the days ahead, we'll know why.) There's a high chance of town-trashing CGI, yes, but it never entirely wipes out the human interest; the script, credited to Mark L. Smith, has almost audibly been through multiple rewrites, and yet someone has preserved exactly the right level of workable summer-season nonsense. The headline news is the long-overdue return of expository science (science!), dumbing things down a little for the layperson in the cheap seats. Nothing here reaches the Dadaist heights of Aaron Eckhart in 2003's The Core, blowing a trumpet into a lump of granite to illustrate Some Principle or Another, but Ramos seizes upon the chance to teach Tornado Tracking 101 in a coffee shop using a glass of water and three pats of butter. It's maybe pushing it to then parallel tornado triangulation with developments among the central trio (sensible Daisy, cocky Glen, conflicted Anthony), no matter how much talk is thrown up about rising pressure and moisture in the air. But there's something quietly stirring in the vision of rival schools of American thought - the pros, clinging to their equipment, and the vibesurfers, going on intuition - coming to learn from one another. Carrying us beyond Kansas, and far from the political storm raging outside the multiplex door, here is a big studio movie that (doubtless with one eye on profit margins) seeks in its own small, goofy way to bridge the divisions in our society, to present good old boys and college-educated elite in an equally heroic light. That, surely, is the reason the phrase "climate change" is never once spoken: too contentious for some. Instead, Twisters takes a turn for the politically abstract, engineering a series of problems, bound at high velocity for red and blue states alike, which demand fixing through close cooperation.

Your director for the occasion is Lee Isaac Chung, who ports over much the same eye for the natural wonders of the American Midwest as he displayed in 2020's Oscar-nominated Minari. Twisters isn't a venture that cries out for an acclaimed humanist filmmaker, if truth be told, but Chung rolls up his sleeves, and plants his feet firmly in this territory, as if they were the retractible screws Powell uses to keep his ute upright in the middle of a Category 4 hurricane. He displays a fondness for every last player in his expansive ensemble (another golden-age blockbuster trait: there are fun one- or two-scene contributions from the likes of Maura Tierney, as Daisy's mom, and Paul Scheer as an airport parking jobsworth), and a Spielbergian way of amusing himself amid the maelstrom, and thereby amusing us. Clock the early scene that concludes with a pullback to reveal the ceiling fan rotating over our heroine: a domestic twister, a premonition of tumults to come. (I also enjoyed the super-cute Joe 90 glasses everybody now dons to combat flying debris, where Hunt, Paxton and co. presumably got through several million dollars' worth of Optrex.) Elements of repetition, at least early on, explain why we didn't get a sequel 25 years ago: there really are only so many ways anyone can shoot an off-road vehicle driving up to/away from an extreme weather front and keep it interesting. Like one of M. Night Shyamalan's infamous airbenders, Chung has to reroute his storms through a rodeo, a petrochemical plant, a little-league baseball fixture and finally the most evocative location of all so as to expand his field study and collect fresh data. In the end, it's still chiefly hot air, whistling at a high rate of knots between the ears, but it's been carefully shaped: it flows as it should for maximum viewer enjoyment. This is one of those projects you could well imagine the Hollywood of 2024 fumbling terribly. It feels a minor accomplishment that Twisters blows literally and frequently, but never figuratively.

Twisters is now showing in cinemas nationwide.

Wednesday 17 July 2024

Mama, we're all crazee now: "Longlegs"

Longlegs' box-office success comes as a surprise for at least two reasons. Firstly, from a distance - and, in fact, fairly close-up - it has the look of yet more of that VOD-bound serial-killer filler Nicolas Cage has been addending of late to his bran tub of a CV. Secondly, this is a horror film that intends to be horrific, offering none of the playful winking and gleeful splatter of the recent Abigail; its insistent coolness of tone serves as a contrast to the overt emotionality of A Quiet Place: Day One. (One reason for American horror cinema's current commercial hot streak may be that its creatives have figured out what's gone missing from the multiplex in recent decades: the element of choice.) We're transported back to the Clinton years - some time post-Silence of the Lambs and pre-Se7en, two likely (and sound) reference points - to observe a cat-and-mouse game between characters who don't quite fit the usual description. Our heroine (Maika Monroe, from It Follows and Watcher) is a hypersensitive young FBI agent classified in the opening reel as part-psychic. Cage's sociopath - who's been taunting his pursuers for thirty years with missives penned in Zodiac-killer code - deploys an unusual MO: turning the patriarchs of innocent families against their own wives and children (and eventually themselves), essentially delegating the butchery. This shift away from procedural norms has two effects. First, it makes us shift uneasily when our gal's boss (Blair Underwood) invites her home early on to meet his wife and child. (Introducing... Chekhov's nuclear family!) Second, it establishes Longlegs as a contender in the field of messing-with-your-head horror, more cerebral than visceral, dependent for its ultimate success on the suggestibility of characters and audience alike. Maybe the crowds have come out for it knowing that, however fucked up things get, they can always sneak into an adjacent screen and have any scattered mind marbles reset by the chiropractic Inside Out 2.

Our mindmangler-in-chief is writer-director Osgood Perkins, son of Anthony, and yes, that must have been some childhood. ("That messes a kid up," the detective is told after confessing her younger self's dreams of becoming an actress.) Perkins Jr. has a real facility with screen space and architecture, immediately setting about conjuring dread from shots seemingly purged of human life: an anonymous suburban retreat, a library corridor, an abandoned farmhouse at twilight. More generally, he opens up his frames by blocking his actors front and centre, as if they were bugs trapped under the glass of the camera: the depths of the frame, with their sudden, shadowy intrusions, equate to the dark recesses of the imagination and the depths of humanity. Who knows what's lurking back there? Some of this is effective, but elsewhere Longlegs betrays a flatness that suggests a jaded soul taking a black marker pen to back editions of Homes & Gardens. The film's strengths are atmospheric rather than narrative: if you were feeling in any way generous, you could call the pacing considered, but this is a frustratingly stop-start investigation that permits its heroine time to go home and unpick her own past family trauma. Here, Longlegs begins to suffer terribly in comparison with the looming memory of the fully dimensional, palpably felt Lambs: where Jonathan Demme and Ted Tally took care to humanise their characters, even making a figure as monstrous as Hannibal Lecter such a franchisable joy to be around, Perkins looks on askance, all too aware of the carnage he has planned.

Monroe gives an especially terse and unhappy sketch of someone messed up beyond easy recognition from the word go; the performance is never allowed to extend past an eternally twitching, clenching jaw. Cage, meanwhile, in what seems likely to prove the most divisive (because ripest) turn of his mid-career renaissance, is busy making a mockery of the plot: not for a single minute do we buy that someone who looks this way (like Jim Morrison pulled from the Thames after thirty years) and acts this way (shouty glam-rock flourishes) would have escaped police attention for the best part of three decades. The trouble with Longlegs is that for all its unsettling ambience, its characters feel like a weird kid's doodles rather than convincingly perishable flesh-and-blood. The reason the teens at my public screening gathered in the foyer afterwards to list the ways in which the film wasn't scary is that none of the deaths in the final half-hour seem to matter; like the killer's familiars, these people are hollow dolls filled with sugar syrup, posed in place and bashed around, and their eventual passing is but the inevitably grim icing on a generally sorry, desperately thin cake. Clearly, in our post-Ari Aster universe, there's a demographic hungry for this type of sour-patch confection - and, crucially, ways of marketing it to them. I'll concede that in its stronger stretches - the first hour in particular - Longlegs is distinctively odd in its depiction of everyday, back-garden American madness. But it proves an awful slog towards a far from rewarding payoff, and a movie that gets monumentally less assured and convincing once Cage's monster is drawn out into the spotlight: here, at the last, is nothing so terrifying as a big old ham who's been let loose on the propbox.

Longlegs is now showing in cinemas nationwide.

Tuesday 16 July 2024

In memoriam: Shannen Doherty (Telegraph 14/07/24)

Shannen Doherty, who has died from cancer aged 53, was a film and television actress who struggled to outgrow the tempestuous reputation she gained in her early twenties while working on the hit teen drama Beverly Hills, 90210 (1990-2000).

Produced by TV mogul Aaron Spelling but the brainchild of Darren Star, who would later create HBO’s Sex & The City (1998-2004), 90210 was a glossy fantasy describing the progress of the Walsh twins – Jason Priestley’s boy-next-door Brandon and Doherty’s flintier Brenda – as their family relocated from flatland Minnesota to sunkissed California. 

Initially scheduled against the hallowed Cheers (1982-1993), the series advanced in the US ratings after pivoting away from its early, issue-led plotlines towards photogenic afterschool soap; it also became a minor sensation after launching in ITV’s Saturday teatime slot.

Yet the distance between carefully curated onscreen aspiration and troubled show reality could be measured by a sliding scale of supermarket-tabloid headlines. In December 1991, Teen magazine declared Doherty “90210’s Coolest Co-Ed”; by March 1993, US magazine was running with “Shannen Doherty: ‘I Don’t Know How Much Worse It Can Get’”.

Suffice to say Doherty had taken to stardom altogether chaotically; indeed, at one point, her bank intervened after the actress reportedly wrote $32,000 of bad cheques. More damaging were the bad vibes emanating from on set: there was open enmity with resident “good girl” Jennie Garth, who later admitted the pair “wanted to claw one another’s eyes out”. After continually reporting late for work, and eventually confounding continuity by cutting her hair mid-shoot, Doherty finally left 90210 in 1994, her image digitally purged from a subsequent flashback episode.

Interviewed in 2000, Doherty reflected on the circumstances that led to her departure: “It wasn’t like I walked out one day and said, ‘I quit’. It was a very long process. Aaron got as fed up with me as I was with the show, and I think it was because the notoriety was too much. People were hating the character, and I couldn't take the abuse that came with that… It was all very hurtful.”

For a while, Doherty threatened to become no more than a pop-cultural punchline. In August 1996, she was sentenced to anger management counselling after throwing a beer bottle at the windscreen of a motorist with whom she’d rowed; she was parodied as demanding diva “Hunter Fallow” on the WB series Grosse Pointe (2000-01) – the show that happened to be Darren Star’s network follow-up to 90210.

By then, Doherty had found herself a second home amid a coven of suburban witches on a rival WB show. The Spelling-produced Charmed (1998-2006) was one of the cosier fantasy series to be greenlit following the success of The X-Files (1993-2002) and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), blending photogenic leads, supernatural misadventures and a light dash of sisterhood.
Yet the show’s positioning as Gothy comfort viewing was undermined by reports of more unrest, this time between Doherty and co-star Alyssa Milano. Possibly sensing history had started to repeat itself, Spelling sided with Milano, and replaced Doherty with Rose McGowan before season four; yet Doherty was savvy enough to retain her percentage as the show rolled on into syndication, and later reconciled with Milano amid a 2013 Twitter thread floating the idea of a Charmed reunion movie.

While promoting her 2010 self-help book Badass: A Hard-Earned Guide to Living Life with Style and (the Right) Attitude, Doherty reflected on her often acrimonious career: “I have a rep. Did I earn it? Yeah, I did. But after a while you sort of try to shed that rep because you’re kind of a different person. You’ve evolved and all the bad things you’ve done in your life have brought you to a much better place.”

Shannen Maria Doherty was born in Memphis, Tennessee on April 12, 1971, the younger of two children for banker Tom Doherty and his beautician wife Rosa (née Wright), who raised the family in the Southern Baptist faith. The clan moved to Los Angeles seven years later, when Doherty’s father was appointed to head the West Coast arm of the family transportation business.

Hitting the auditions circuit hard alongside her mother, Doherty landed two episodes of the Western series Father Murphy in 1981, impressing actor-turned-showrunner Michael Landon so much he found Doherty roles on the final season of the much-loved Little House on the Prairie (1974-83) and Highway to Heaven (1985); juggling acting with studies, she also appeared in such primetime mainstays as Magnum, PI (1983) and Airwolf (1984), and played Robert Kennedy’s daughter Kathleen in the miniseries Robert Kennedy and His Times (1985).

Doherty was lucky to hit adolescence amid the mid-Eighties boom in teen-themed entertainment, driven by such blockbuster successes as Back to the Future (1985) – and she had the advantage of not having to play markedly younger than she was, unlike Sarah Jessica Parker and Helen Hunt, her twentysomething co-stars in Girls Just Want to Have Fun (1985).

She landed her most prominent big-screen role as one of the titular mean girls in the cult black comedy Heathers (1988), although it was unclear whether she entirely knew what she was getting into at the time. According to co-star (and senior Heather) Lisanne Falk, the 17-year-old Doherty emerged from a test screening giggling “I didn’t realise we were making a comedy”.

In the wake of her TV breakthrough – and subsequent notoriety – Doherty made a haphazard bid for maturity, stripping for Playboy in 1993 and the thriller Blindfold: Acts of Obsession (1994), where she met, fell for and briefly found herself engaged to co-star Judd Nelson. Her tenacity impressed William Friedkin, who cast Doherty as a wild child in Jailbreakers (1994); revisiting her roots, she also played Gone with the Wind author Margaret Mitchell in the tepid telefilm A Burning Passion (1994).

Full movie stardom, however, proved far harder to attain. She landed a rare lead in Kevin Smith’s Mallrats (1995) – ominously beating Alyssa Milano to the role – and recurred as a valley girl in Gregg Araki’s Nowhere (1997), alongside her Charmed replacement McGowan; but she turned down roles in Smith’s subsequent Dogma (1999) and postmodern sequel Scream 3 (2000), instead seeing her CV fill up with direct-to-DVD titles.

TV welcomed her back, first tentatively, then with greater trust. Amid the perhaps inevitable Beverly Hills, 90210: 10-Year High School Reunion (2003), Doherty confessed she found it hard pretending pin-up Priestley was her brother, on account of his “being so hot”. She hosted two seasons of prank show Scare Tactics (2003-2004), and was first off the tenth season of Dancing with the Stars (2005).

Yet a third dramatic success was beyond her. Upmarket soap North Shore (2004), on which her character was introduced stepping out of a limo with the line “It beats the hell out of Beverly Hills”, was cancelled after one season; she was replaced on the sitcom Love, Inc. (2005) after shooting the pilot. By 2006, she was being harassed by Leigh Francis’s alter ego Avid Merrion on the Channel 4 comedy Bo! in the USA.

She remained a tabloid focal point, not least for her turbulent love life. Marriage to George Hamilton’s son Ashley at the height of her 90210 fame, when she was 22 and he was 18, lasted only five months; there were subsequent engagements to cosmetics heir Dean Factor (who filed a restraining order against his fiancée in May 1993) and real-estate developer Chris Foufas. A second marriage, to professional poker player Rick Salomon, was annulled after nine months.

Doherty was at least game enough to make a joke out of this merry-go-round, signing up to host the hidden camera dating show Breaking Up with Shannen Doherty (2006). And she eventually found love with photographer Kurt Iswarienko: married in 2011, they remained together until a divorce prompted by his infidelity in 2023. “Listen, Elizabeth Taylor still has me beat as far as husbands and divorces, so I’m good,” she rationalised. “There’s no reason to be negative about it. S**t happens.”

By then, though, she’d become a fixture in the press for health reasons. Doherty announced a diagnosis of breast cancer in 2015; it went into remission after a mastectomy in 2016 before returning in 2019. In 2020, she revealed the cancer was now stage IV; by 2023, it had spread to her brain and bones.

Tenacious to the last, she worked throughout her treatment, appearing in both the TV reboot of Heathers (2018) and BH90210 (2019), a knowing comic riff on her breakthrough show in which she and her sometime co-stars reunited playing themselves, renegotiating fallouts that had long been a matter of public record; despite good reviews, it was cancelled after one season.

In 2023, she launched her own podcast, Let’s Be Clear with Shannen Doherty, which mixed personal recollections with campaigning for cancer research and activism on behalf of her fellow patients: “People just assume [cancer] means you can’t walk, you can’t eat, you can’t work. They put you out to pasture at a very early age – ‘you’re done, you’re retired.’ We’re vibrant, and we have such a different outlook on life. We are people who want to work and embrace life and keep moving forward.”

Shannen Doherty, born April 12, 1971, died July 13, 2024.

Saturday 13 July 2024

For what it's worth...

UK box office Top Ten (for the weekend of July 5-7, 2024):

1 (1) Inside Out 2 (U) ****
2 (2) A Quiet Place: Day One (15) ***
3 (4) Bad Boys: Ride or Die (15)
4 (new) MaXXXine (18) **
5 (5) The Bikeriders (15)
6 (3) Kalki 2898 A.D. (12A) **
7 (9) The Garfield Movie (U)
8 (6) Kinds of Kindness (18) **
9 (10) IF (U)
10 (7) Jatt & Juliet 3 (12A)

(source: BFI)

My top five:

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (1) Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire (12)
2 (new) Furiosa: a Mad Max Saga (15) ****
3 (new) Civil War (15) ***
4 (6) Back to Black (15)
5 (2) Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire (12)
6 (4) Kung Fu Panda 4 (PG)
7 (7) Anyone but You (15)
8 (3) Dune: Part Two (12) **
9 (23) Challengers (15) **
10 (5) Wicked Little Letters (15)

My top five: 
1. Monkey Man

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Point Break [above] (Sunday, BBC1, 11pm)
2. BlacKkKlansman (Wednesday, Channel 4, 1am)
3. Fight Club (Sunday, Channel 4, midnight)
4. The Last Stand (Saturday, Channel 4, 11.40pm)
5. Law of Tehran (Saturday, BBC2, 1am)

Friday 12 July 2024

L.A. lore: "MaXXXine"

During the pandemic, Ti West shot two films back-to-back in New Zealand that benefitted from a tight focus: 
X was a slasher variant carving up an amateur porn shoot on a remote rural farm, while prequel Pearl dug memorably deeper into the tormented backstory of the earlier film's monster-in-chief. Everything you need to know about this trilogy's third entry, the sequel MaXXXine, can be deduced from its expansive opening credits. Firstly, West is back in the US; secondly, he now has actors clamoring to work with him, having seen a) those modestly budgeted horror ventures succeed at the box office, and b) the transformative effect this filmmaker had on leading lady Mia Goth, a once-drifting indie It girl thrust into the awards conversation for her tenacious performance as Pearl. Goth returns for the new film as Maxine Minx, bloodied survivor of X, rejoined in a transitional moment in mid-1980s Los Angeles, leaving the adult entertainment in which she first made her name behind in order to take up a scream-queen role in The Puritan II, theatrically bound sequel to a straight-to-video slasher hit. Around her, MaXXXine demonstrates far more ambition than its predecessors: Maxine's continued upward progress is framed within the moral panics of the 1980s entertainment industry (so-called video nasties, Tipper Gore lambasting Prince songs in Congress), dark rumblings of Satanism, the legends of the Hollywood Boulevard, and the murderous deeds of the real-life serial killer dubbed The Night Stalker, on the rampage here even before Maxine finds herself being pursued by a figure who knows exactly what our gal's done to get where she is. As a result, the focus is split and scattered. We spend what feels like three-quarters of MaXXXine hustling around town, taking meetings, being introduced to new and varyingly shady characters. Nothing is allowed to be as still or potent as the closing image of Pearl, which set a static camera running on a face riding a rollercoaster of emotions.

It comes as a slight letdown, because when he allows himself time to concentrate and carve scenes out, West again proves a better director of horror than most. MaXXXine's most unnerving setpiece arrives early on: the heroine freaking out after being covered with the liquid rubber used to make headcasts for make-up effects. (The scene may have had its genesis in the latex Goth had to don for her dual role in X.) And clearly West enjoys working with varied, capable performers: we get colourful supporting turns from Elizabeth Debicki as a horror tyro who takes a hands-on approach to gore, Kevin Bacon as a sleazy blackmailer, and Giancarlo Esposito as Maxine's rep at the amusingly named TNA Agency. (West is often funny with his details: witness Maxine stomping into work at an airport-adjacent stripjoint called The Landing Strip.) Yet you feel too many subplots jostling for prominence between the film's outsized quotation marks - you can practically smell the deleted scenes, the long nights in the edit suite - and the lacquered Eighties homage works against anything genuinely horrific: it's hard to be knowing (as MaXXXine is) and shocking (as MaXXXine wants to be) at the same time. Like Greta Gerwig, whom he directed in 2009's House of the Devil, West began his career on the fringes of the shuffling mumblecore movement. MaXXXine might be regarded as this filmmaker's Barbie, repositioning an established platinum-blonde heroine in a new and even more expensive doll's house. (For the Dream House, read the dream factory.) West has fun rerouting everybody to the Bates Motel and setting scenes to Frankie Goes to Hollywood à la Brian De Palma, but he's too often having to play traffic cop: his dialogue sounds newly hurried and on-the-nose, and everything collapses in a heap after a botched final-reel reveal. Goth, at least, continues to evoke the angelic and demonic simultaneously; her Maxine, at once American dream and nightmare, finally gets where she longs to be. Yet the intensity that so distinguished her work in Pearl dissipates here amid a surfeit of postmodern clutter. It often happens when folks go to Hollywood: they get distracted, and some lose their edge.

MaXXXine is now showing in selected cinemas.