July 22nd: The Guns, the Bad and the Uglies

Extreme Prejudice

149. Extreme Prejudice (Walter Hill, 1987)

Nick Nolte is Texas Ranger Jack Benteen, trying to bring the law to a part of the country that just can’t shake the Wild West spirit. Powers Booth is Cash Bailey, cross border drug baron and formerly Jack’s best friend. That’d be a pretty straightforward 80’s action film, but if you throw in Michael Ironside’s crack black ops crew and bank robbery – you’re on to a winner.

Walter Hill’s homage to Peckinpah’s Wild Bunch just drips with masculinity. With a cast of big, strong men with booming voices and ‘interesting’ faces, a storyline of old friendships tested to breaking point and the possession of a relatively unimportant woman as a central conceit – this is pure manliness writ large. There’s plenty of guns and plenty of opportunities to use them. There’s no real subtext here, no major issue dealt with in any meaningful way – this is good guys and bad guys and some guys you aren’t quite sure about until the end. It’s kinetic, booming and broad in every way except for the watertight direction from Walter Hill. What a phenomenal cast too! B-list wonders pop up in every direction. William Forsythe, Clancy Brown and Rip Torn crop up to round out the cast of familiar faces, each one ugly in their own beautiful way. Extreme Prejudice climaxes in a crazed shootout with bullets in every direction. It’s lean genre film-making and there was a time when Walter Hill did it very well, before he got involved with nonsense like Supernova.

Much thanks to Conor who has been telling me about Extreme Prejudice for ages and bought me an excellent Walter Hill box-set for my birthday.

July 21st: Ground Control to Major Sam

Moon

148. Moon (Duncan Jones, 2009)

Sam Bell is the lone operative of an isolated Helium3 mining facility on the moon with only the base computer, GERTY, for company. He’s two weeks from the end of his three-year contract and looking forward to going home to see his wife and daughter. But Sam starts to see things, he starts getting distracted and confused which leads to an accident on the surface. When Sam wakes up he finds himself back in the base with another person. It’s another Sam, younger and more cocksure but still the same Sam. The two of them are unsure of what is happening and as they try to uncover what is happening things begin to take a sinister turn.

I’ll confidently say that the debut film from Duncan Jones is already a slice of vintage Science fiction. The influences are made pretty clear but they never seem derivative, they remain honest and effective which seems to me to be the key to good genre film-making. I could go on about these influences for a page and a half but I’ll stick to the most important to say what I want. There are hints of 2001: A Space Odyssey in the cold and slightly condescending voice of Kevin Spacey for GERTY as well as with the simple white interiors of the base, but the key themes echo from the late 70s/early 80s era of science fiction, one that sits particularly well in my nostalgia receptors. The Alien films, particularly Ridley Scott’s original film, used the backdrop of interstellar corporations as the true enemy of piece, the monster was merely the commodity they wished to appropriate. This idea is reprised in Moon to great effect and it seems especially pertinent in a time of financial pressure as people struggle to reconcile the immense profits of multinational corporations and their inability to find work. It’s a kind of criticism that has become absent in mainstream cinema, probably due to the increasingly symbiotic relationship between Hollywood and the corporations, but it was a staple of the cynical 70s attitude. It’s pleasing that Moon has a low enough budget that it’s able to continue this kind of admirable ‘stick it to the man’ attitude.

This corporate insidiousness is also part of Moon’s other major influence Blade Runner, but the relationship goes further than that. Moon is a rumination on what it is to be human and to what extent memories qualify the human experience. It’s a theme that is repeatedly found in the works of Philip K. Dick and one that seems to be best served by science fiction. This forms the emotional core of Moon as the two Sam’s come to terms with the possibility that they are not really Sam, the possibility that the accumulated memories and feelings that they have are not really their own. It’s a complex problem, and like Blade Runner no easy answers are put forward because none of them would be appropriate or genuine.

I could ramble on but let me finish by crediting the excellent moody score by Clint Mansell and not one, but two, fine performances from Sam Rockwell. There’s something to be said for the use of small scale models instead of CGI for the moon surface sequences. Obviously it was a budgetary influence in making this decision but it’s one that has paid a dividend in maintaining the overall aesthetic of the film. Moon is an assured and mature piece of work, go and see it if you can.

July 19th: Frat pack

Jackass

147. Jackass Number Two (Jeff Tremaine, 2006)

The boys are back in town and they’re being very, very silly all over again. You like this or you don’t. You enjoy seeing people putting themselves in ridiculous situations where the outcome is more than likely some form of physical injury, or you don’t. There’s no accounting for it. I have a pretty well developed sense of humour, I love a bit of high satire, I even laughed once at Shakespeare. But this college/frat boy humour of consistently putting your body on the line and tricking your friends makes my body convulse with laughter. It’s more of the same formula but this time they push the envelope very far indeed. There’s some astonishing footage of wrestling anacondas in a ball pool and swimming quickly away from an inquisitive mako shark as well as the usual pranks and hi-jinks. But if you didn’t like the Jackass TV series or the first film you’ll want to skip this. It is formula – but the formula works and I happen to think that watching a fat man attempt to act as a bungee anchor for a midget is very funny.

July 11th: Evergreen Genocide

treevenge_logo

146. Treevenge (Jason Eisener, 2008)

Have you ever stopped to consider the life of the Christmas tree? Chopped down en-masse and transported around the country, trussed up and taken to garish isolated prisons before being adorned with a dizzying assortment of decorations and then treated as totem pole for a weeks worth of frenzied celebrations before being tossed away, used and unwanted. That kind of treatment might make you pretty angry, pretty pissed off and ready to do something, ready to get some revenge – tree style.

Weighing in at an epic 16 minutes this is probably the best short film I’ve seen so far this year and I want to share it with anyone who reads this blog. There’s sharp, witty exploitation thrills to be had. Made with great care and no lack of talent and with a tongue nestling snugly in cheek. So good I’ve embedded it on the site for you to watch too…

(If you get the time then check out the awesome precursor to Treevenge from ‘Yer Dead’ Productions, Grindhouse trailer ‘Hobo with a Shotgun’.)

July 10th: Brave Old World

145. Apocalypto (Mel Gibson, 2006)

Which of the following best describes Mel Gibson?

  1. Charismatic Oscar winning actor/director with a fantastically successful record at the box-office and a very good eye for a shot.
  2. A homophobic, anti-semitic, misogynist and religious fundamentalist.
  3. Both.

From the little I know about Mel, I don’t think we’d get along so well. But he has an eye for a story and a very strong track record of hitting box-office paydirt. Following his unexpected success with The Passion of the Christ (One letter from being a film about me and my love of tea, cricket and heavy metal), Mel turned his attention to the ancient civilisations of South America – the Mayans to be precise. The premise is simple, a forest village is raided and razed, the adults are captured and the children are left behind. They are taken to a Mayan city where the women are sold as slaves and the men are taken for sacrifice. One of the captured, Jaguar Paw, escapes and so begins the chase back to his village where he’s left his wife and child in the village’s dry well. It’s set up very simply by showing the Mayans in broad strokes to be ‘a bit like us’. They laugh and joke and the boys go hunting whilst the girls have babies. It’s a fraction away from being a bit insulting really but I reckon it’s reined in just enough, though the fact that I noticed it is pretty telling.

Anyhow, the last 40 minutes of the film are pure chase. It’s pure and visceral, successful in that respect where last nights entertainment, The Gauntlet, failed. That’s the crux of the film, the adrenaline rush of the chase. It’s paced and shot to great effect. However, I’m not sure what Mel’s big aim was – the depiction of Mayan society isn’t particularly insightful or challenging but it works as spectacle. It’s lusciously shot, from verdant jungle to the technicolour gore and body paint of the Mayan city, it all looks excellent. But there isn’t really much going on underneath that sheen. Maybe that’s all he wanted, for that it certainly warrants being watched at least once.

July 9th: Wedded Bliss and Bullets

The Gauntlet

144. The Gauntlet (Clint Eastwood, 1977)

Who is Sondra Locke? Who is she really? I know her as the co-star of six of Clint Eastwood’s films during the course of their 14-year relationship and that their break-up involved some heavy duty litigation. The Gauntlet is the second film they made together and it’s pretty ordinary by Eastwood standards. Clint plays a run down cop, Ben Shockley, sent to Vegas to escort prostitute Gus Mally (Locke) to Phoenix for testimony in a supposedly unimportant case. Things start getting tasty when Shockley and Mally, start being hunted down and the chase is on. It sounds like it should be a breakneck action ride but aside from an excellently photographed chase between a motorbike and a helicopter it’s surprisingly pedestrian.

I always badmouth Sondra, because I’d heard she sued Clint after they split up for ruining her career. If Clint Eastwood puts you in six films I’d assume that would be a boost to anyone. Well it turns out it’s a tad more complex than that and if you fancy a read of the long lasting case then take a look here. Suffice to say that it certainly seems like they don’t get along so well anymore. Sondra also wrote a tell-all book about her time with Eastwood, claiming plenty of disreputable activity from the big fella. This isn’t a gossip blog though, so I’ll stick to the cinema.

The Gauntlet brought to my attention something that hadn’t really appeared to me before. I think Clint hates bikers. The biker gang he encounters in this are portrayed as renegade borderline rapists and thugs. They were similarly played in the fourth Dirty Harry film (with Sondra Locke) Sudden Impact. They were also reduced to bumbling incompetents in the two Philo Beddoe movies (with Locke in tow) Any Which Way But Loose and Every Which Way You Can. What is it about the bikers Clint?

July 8th: Electric Boogaloo

Shock Corridor

143. Shock Corridor (Sam Fuller, 1963)

Sam Fuller had a bit of a problem with censorship throughout his career. Shock Corridor was banned for release in Britain by the BBFC because it dealt with issues of mental health in such an explicit fashion, a big taboo alongside sex and violence in those days. Peter Breck plays Johnny Barrett, a reporter hell bent on winning a Pulitzer prize to the extent that he will con his way into a mental institution in order to solve the murder that took place there. It’s a pulpy noirish plot that is used as a framework for Sam Fuller to drape a blanket of lurid sleazy images over. Johnny’s girlfriend, Cathy, is a burlesque stripper. In order to get Johnny into the asylum she pretends to be his sister and therefore the object of a dysfunctional desire. Fuller makes this desire as confusing as possible because the longer Johnny is in the asylum and the closer he gets to discovering the killer, the more his mind fractures under the strain.

Coated in seedy, lurid overtones and willing to display the madness of the situation in full, Shock Corridor is the kind of B-Movie that is so much smarter than it lets on. The three inmates that Johnny attempts to get information out of each represent a key facet of American culture at the time. The first is a veteran of the Korean war who has been so disillusioned by the Cold War’s ideological attrition that he has reverted to the mind of a Civil War general, a war where American’s fought each other. The second is a man whose mind was so pressured by being the first black student at a Southern white college that he envisions the racial hatred as justified. He spouts Klan ideologies to the other inmates and sparks a bizarre attempted lynching. The final inmate is a former Army officer so consumed by fear of the atomic bomb that he has receded mentally to the comfort of behaving like a child.

Smart stuff Mr Fuller and brave too. Shock Corridor shows the hospital as the microcosm of American society and suggests that America is a chamber pot of seething madness and noise. Was he right? Was the delirious hope of the 50s/60s really giving the signals already that America’s innocence was on the wane, was he predicting the messy destruction of this optimism in the wake of Watergate and Vietnam? I think he was and I think he wrapped it up in an excellent sleazy little B-movie with enough fast paced action, suggestive sexual tension and sheer madness to sell it to the thrill-seeker audience.

Note: Shock Corridor is listed in the Neon book 1000 Essential Movies on Video under Mental Movies.

Second Note: The posters for this film are excellent and from an era where foreign distributors often chose to vary, alter or completely re-do film posters. This is the excellent French poster.

July 7th: Metal ’til I die

anvil_ver2

142. Anvil: The Story of Anvil (Sacha Gervasi, 2008)

For a big chunk of watching this documentary about a failed Canadian metal band I thought it was a spoof itself. The whole plot of the film mirrors that of the legendary This is Spinal Tap so closely that I was certain that it had to be fictional. Despite the weight of evidence that it is a genuine story the doubts still linger, Anvil’s drummer is called Robb Reiner, This is Spinal Tap was directed by Rob Reiner. Isn’t that just a little bit weird?

Doubts of authenticity aside Anvil are about the most uplifting story in metal history. Robb Reiner and Steve ‘Lips’ Kudlow were childhood friends who decided to play heavy metal, they were going to do it with or without success. Initially it looked like they might have the success that they craved, there’s footage of them playing alongside Scorpions and Bon Jovi in the early 80s. But unfortunately they fell by the wayside and no-one seems to know why. The film shows how they live now, their day jobs and their lives. It follows them on a fairly disastrous European tour and eventually to the recording of their thirteenth album ‘This is Thirteen’. All the way through what is uniformly displayed is the amazing self belief that these guys have, Lips especially. Every knock is greeted by his amazingly expressive face momentarily shaking before he attempts to see the bright side. He’s a stunning human being really. And his face has to be seen to be believed, it’s a stunning combination of ageing heavy metal fatigue and a puppy dog. You cannot fail to want him to succeed, such is his earnestness. There’s fights, tears, failure and tenuous success. It’s a vibrantly emotional film and, for a heavy metal fan such as myself, a testament to the enduring power of the music and to a lesser extent the ethos it is wrapped up with. I have to say, I think Anvil aren’t a particularly good band. If I’m honest I think they’re rubbish but that only enhances the appeal of the film.

The post-script to this film is the fairly stunning news that Anvil, through the power of cinema, have become popular again. They have apparently recently booked two support slots for the enormous AC/DC tour of North America, success indeed.

July 6th: Flyboy

aviator

141. The Aviator (Martin Scorsese, 2004)

Howard Hughes was a very strange man. My experience of the man prior to this came mainly from the portrayal of Hughes in James Ellroy’s excellent books American Tabloid and The Cold Six Thousand. In these books it is the late stage Hughes who appears, secluded and increasingly riven with bizarre mannerisms whilst heavily involved with the development of Las Vegas. He is also, along with his penchant for Mormons, extremely racist. This facet of his personality is only hinted at in The Aviator which focuses instead on Hughes’ experiences from filming Hell’s Angels up to the legendary flight of his ‘Spruce Goose’ giant aeroplane (a derogatory name which Hughes hated).

It’s difficult to say how I feel about this film, it comes from a director whose work in the 70s, 80s and 90s was consistently brilliant. But I can’t think of a Scorsese film that measures up to this period since Casino. Much the same as The Departed and Gangs of New York I can’t help but feel that there are pacing issues with The Aviator, at 170 minutes it feels sluggish and occasionally directionless. DiCaprio is fine and the supporting cast are excellent, particularly Cate Blanchett’s turn as Katharine Hepburn. The real climax of the film isn’t the flight of the behemoth aeroplane but the congressional hearings where Hughes displayed his charisma and intelligence to defeat a bill which could have crushed his own plane company, TWA. It seems odd then that this particular storyline isn’t the real focus of the film.

The Aviator is a competent film but one that doesn’t linger in the memory which is pretty damning criticism for the man who made a series of cinema classics.

July 5th: Digital Killed the Video Star

be_kind_rewind

140. Be Kind Rewind (Michel Gondry, 2008)

The films of Michel Gondry have a homespun feeling, the effects seem much more tactile than the barrage of CGI that we are treated to by most modern American cinema. This story of a video store clerk forced to recreate scenes from various films after his friend accidentally wipes their content is a perfect vehicle for this aesthetic. The film is based in the New Jersey community of Passaic, an economically depressed area on the evidence of the DVD extras. Gondry has successfully captured the sense of community by his inclusion of locals. The baseline story is the classic small community set-up. Mr Fletcher (Danny Glover) owns a VHS rental store which charges minimum prices for its films. It is being threatened by a takeover and being turned into apartments, Mos Def and Jack Black attempt to make the money to stave off the takeover by making ‘Swede’ versions of the videos after they are wiped. It’s pretty straightforward stuff plotwise, nothing spectacular, but what it becomes is an ode to the physicality of VHS. In an age where digital media has completely altered our method of consumption there is something comforting about the visible workings of a video tape.

To bundle together the sense of community, this love letter to a dying medium and present it with warmth and humour is a success. I grew up with video and as a child of the 80s and 90s there is something about Be Kind Rewind that appeals in a nostalgic sense. This isn’t brilliant in the way that Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is but, for me, this film succeeds in its remit. It’s a celebration, a slightly quiet and understated celebration of a time that has passed. There are moments of silliness but they too are warm and well intentioned, overall there isn’t anything unpalatable about this.