Thursday, 30 November 2017

MunsterGo Home!
Dir: Earl Bellamy
1966’s Munster, Go Home!, the Munster’s first feature-length incarnation, was produced and released in order to introduce the characters and concept to foreign audiences, as it came in advance of international syndication for the film's source material, the television series that comprised of 70 episodes and gained a global cult following. I was always more of a fan of The Munsters than its similarly-themed rival The Addams Family and one thing it had to its advantage was that it enjoyed a couple of decent film outings with 98% of the original cast included. The Addams Family have enjoyed big screen success twice now but with a completely different cast to the original, and sadly both beloved programs have suffered some of the worst re-makes ever to have been made. While Munster, Go Home! Isn’t exactly a masterpiece, I feel very warmly about it. The jokes are old fashioned but always enjoyable and it was nice to see the family taken out of their natural habitat, a typical format for feature-length versions of popular sitcoms but handled rather well in this instance. Its big selling point at the time was that it was the first time the family would be seen in glorious Technicolor and the transition from black and white was very successful. The huge added bonus for film fans however was the casting of the legendary Terry-Thomas. T-T plays a distant relative of the Munsters, the son of Herman’s great uncle who has left him his manor in England as well as his title of Lord of Shroudshire. The Munsters travel, by boat, to their inherited home and find that while their relatives are as feared as they are but they’re not quite as nice and loveable. The British Munsters are upset that their father has left their home and title to the American Munsters and stop at nothing to rid themselves of their cousins. Lily has a fling with a local boy she met on the journey over but is looked down upon by his Munster-hating parent and Herman somehow enters a drag race. The story feels like three unrelated episodes pasted together, and I wonder whether that is genuinely the case, but it is all part of the Munster charm and very much in keeping with the mad-cap style of the television show. Earl Bellamy had directed many of the episodes so he was part of the family and knew what needed to be done, he changed very little of the original format and made an authentic film version, something other shows always seemed to struggle with. I think it was a shame that Pat Priest didn’t return as Marilyn for the film, and I don’t think Debbie Watson quite fit in with the rest of the cast but after Beverly Owen left the series the part always seemed like the least important. What I loved most about the original series was the chemistry between Herman and Grandpa. Fred Gwynne and Al Lewis were great friends and had worked together for some time and the pair made for quite an iconic double act. Thankfully this chemistry is nurtured in the film, the pair sharing most of the stand-out scenes. Terry-Thomas isn’t given the best script in the world but he is brilliant with what he is given. My favourite part of the film is the final sequence that sees Herman enter a race in a dragster made from an old coffin and painted gold. It’s the handy work of Grandpa in the film but the now famous DRAG-U-LA was designed by the famous auto customizer genius George Barris who also designed the Munster’s family car (known as Munster Koach) and the famous 1966 Batmobile. I loved the scenes whereby the Munsters travel incognito across the Atlantic but Herman’s race is the concept at its cartoonish best. The film is a treat for fans of the series and is one of the rare occasions where a sitcom leaps from small screen to big screen without losing any of the charm or appeal that made it popular in the first place.

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

The Decline Of Western Civilization Part III
Dir: Penelope Spheeris
The Decline of Western Civilization Part III is definitely the most profound of Penelope Spheeris’s trilogy. Coming seventeen year after the first and a decade after the second, some of the kids featured in the movie were only just born when the trilogy started, some wouldn’t be born for a couple of years later. Yet, these are the kids born from the likes of Darby Crash, who featured in the first film. Unlike the first two films, Decline Part III deal more so with the punks themselves, rather than the punk bands they follow. This touched upon in the first two films but the bands definitely take a back seat for the final film. Only one band, Naked Aggression, feature for any length of time, generally down to their political and social message and the fact they understand that their fans and punks in general are an important part of society that need to be listened to. They’re a far cry from the ‘no future’ bands of the late 70s, in that they motivate the kids to actually fight back and harness their anger. However, much of the film deals with the gutter punks who have largely given up on being any part of society and are more interested in getting drunk. The title The Decline of Western Civilization probably has more poignancy to this film than the first two of the series, a generation of homeless kids who have been abandoned and abused, who don’t care about anything, even their own futures. Spheeris approaches the kids with great sympathy, a sympathy that is deserved. While she is always an outsider, ‘one of them’ in that she is actually part of society, she does seem to get through to the kids, who only now and again remember to keep up their bravado and skepticism. They fear and play up to the camera at the same time, by the end of the film Spheeris is almost mothering them, out of sheer desperation as she sees these largely-nice kids destroying themselves and wasting their lives. She interviews a cop who pretty much states that he and his colleagues stop them all the time, purely because they don’t like the way they dress, and all the things the kids say happens to them suddenly ring true. It’s both bitterly sad and utterly frustrating. A frightened and abused dog will bark at strangers, it doesn’t take that much to tame them by showing love. Spheeris gets far more involved than most documentary film makers, indeed, she actually started a relationship with one of the older interviewees and is still with him. She donated all the proceeds of the film to homeless children charities and she even adopted five homeless kids. Any rose-tinted ideas of positivity are then smashed at the end of the film, when we learn that one of the kids featured had burned to death in a squat fire just weeks later and another had been stabbed to death by his girlfriend, who came across as one of the sweetest of the group in her interviews. The kids play up to the camera, they say they don’t care and they’re alcoholics but their bravado makes you not quite believe them. By the end you believe, and it is one of the saddest things I’ve seen on film, indeed, it is hard to argue that it couldn’t be seen as an example of the decline in western civilization. The film was originally to be titled 'The Decline In Eastern Civilization' and was to cover the Japanese heavy metal music scene but thankfully Spheeris decided to stick with sub-culture in Los Angeles, just like the first two films. A shocking and poignant ending to a remarkable trilogy.

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years
Dir: Penelope Spheeris
Penelope Spheeris’s follow up to 1981’s The Decline of Western Civilization looks at heavy metal in the late 80s. It is glorious. While the first film of the trilogy looked at punk in Los Angeles, Spheeris, who had gain attention from her first film, decided to look at another music trend and persuaded some of the biggest bands of the moment to perform and be interviewed. While the first film was fairly raw (punks aren’t going to be told what to do) the heavy metal chapter is very much a staged affair. Gene Simmons is interviewed in a sexy lingerie shop, while scantily clad ladies walk around choosing outfits (he comes across fairly intelligently, until he stops to purr at the half naked opportunists every minute or so), his band mate Paul Stanley (AKA Star Child) performs his interview in bed surrounded by half-naked girls and failed band Odin sit in a hot tub, boasting that they will one day be bigger than The Doors (they split before the film was released). Ozzy Osbourne is filmed making breakfast while talking about the danger of drugs, while Chris Holmes of W.A.S.P is interviewed drunk, floating on an inflatable chair in someone’s swimming pool. Only Alice Cooper and Lemmy from Motorhead come across as intelligent and non-boastful, although Lemmy later said in his autobiography that he thought it was Spheeris’s intention to make him look stupid by interviewing him from a great distance. Loads of fans and groupies are also interviewed much like the first film but none of them are as interesting. The bands come across as arrogant and sleazy, which is exactly what they were. The girls complain that they are treated badly and the men admit they treat them badly. The younger bands talk of sex, drugs and rock and roll and most of them never made it, while the older groups talk of kicking the habit and investments, they’re the bands who are still around, playing huge stadiums and making millions on merchandise alone. While the title The Decline of Western Civilization suited the first film very well (the title was taken from Oswald Spengler’s book The Decline of the West, where he speculates that man has reached his peak and is on a downward spiral – a passage of which was used in a song performed by Darby Crash of The Germs) it almost suits the second part more so, as while most people in the first chapter were broken in some way they were creative because of it, had no delusions of grandeur and were making music for pleasure and passion. The Metal Years just showed how capitalism was alive and well and convincing the kids that they were somehow unique. The kids like to rock, who doesn’t, but even now rock fans will pay three figures to see their favourite bands in a huge arena, in seats miles away from the stage while punks still won’t pay more than a few coins and will only attend small venues. There is a token scene where some crack-pot lady claims heavy metal is an illness and has a way of curing the kids of it but by the end of the film she certainly isn’t the least likable character. Most of the groups featured were living the dream, nothing new with regards to their behaviour really, it’s just that it had never been so obvious before. These guys were worshiped as gods by their fans, many who felt disillusioned and different, but they ended up showing themselves up as just ‘jocks’ with big hair. It has been claimed in recent years, most notably in the VH1 documentary series Heavy: The Story of Metal that the film was partially responsible for the death of glam metal and the subsequent rise of thrash and grunge. The suggestion in the documentary is that fans, disgusted by the scenes of excess, decided to turn elsewhere. A similar claim was made by Dave Mustaine in his autobiography and in the book Hell Bent for Leather by British author Seb Hunter. You can speculate on whether or not this was Spheeris’s intention, she let herself down by faking a few scenes (Ozzy Osbourne did not spill orange juice everywhere and Chris Holmes bottle of vodka was filled with water) but the Bill Gazzarri interview and his ‘sexy rock and roll’ dance contest was very real, these people were responsible for their own demise. That said, many of them are still around today and making more money than they could even imagine they would in 1988. The first film is fascinating, the second is entertaining but in the same way watching a series of non-fatal car crashes is.

Monday, 27 November 2017

The Decline of Western Civilization Part I
Dir: Penelope Spheeris
1981’s The Decline of Western Civilization Part I is Penelope Spheeris’s first film in a now notorious trilogy that explores three musical sub-cultures that were largely ignored by the mainstream press at the time of each film’s release. Spheeris’s films capture exactly what was happening at the time and record some phenomenal sets from many a long-gone band before they became either giants in the music world or by-gone legends. Some of the venues are also now regarded as sacred ground, many of them now closed for decades. A documentary made today about the Los Angeles punk scene would look very different, with interviews from people who were there repeating their now, half remembered memories of drink and drug fuelled nights at gigs. Most probably can’t remember, some memories are blurred and romanticised and quite a few of them are dead. The Decline of Western Civilization Part I was the here and now, it’s all there for an audience to see, exciting for those interested in the punk world in 1981 and fascinating now for those interested in where a movement once shone. Los Angeles wasn’t the birthplace of punk and punk itself had begun a few years earlier, much of punks history is disputed by those who followed different bands, I know punk fans who are so knowledgeable about the music, bands and movement that they put most wine connoisseurs to shame when it comes to waxing lyrical and general snobbery. Punk represents different things to different people, your mum and dad may think punks were all safety pins and huge green mohicans but that isn’t really the case. You have your London postcard punk and you have your real punk, American punk and British and European punk being different beasts. This film isn’t the history of punk, it was a fly on the wall documentary capturing the performance of the bands and the views of the audience. Spheeris lets the film be what it wants to be, she obviously needed everyone on camera to give permission for their faces to be seen and that was difficult enough, with each band lambasting the request as if they were made to against their will. I love punk, but I love the punk I know. I’m fascinated by it but much of it has become romanticized. Punks hated hippies, mainly because they sold out but all these years later many of the more successful punks have done exactly the same. Punk was the last inventive youth revolution, there hasn’t been one since. Punk deconstructed everything, so now everything is possible. Punk pioneers are seen as social heroes, so it is important sometimes to watch films like The Decline of Western Civilization Part I again, and realise that much of it was fluke, serendipity and that many of the punk pioneers were not very nice kids. It’s a warts and all documentary, great music and a bunch of 1950s kids either rebelling against their white picket fence upbringing or coming from broken homes and heading down a downward spiral. There are loads of posers and wannabes but there are also genuine broken kids who have lost all care. Highlights for me were seeing the live performances from Black Flag and Circle Jerks. I quite like Alice Bag Band too and watching Fear taunt and insult the audience is still amazing all these years later. I think watching Germs is the film’s real poignant scene. Germs lead singer adorned the films poster, their performance is just a slur as lead singer Darby Crash is barely able to stand. He was dead from suicide by heroin overdose before the film was released. It is a raw and powerful capture of history, as all documentaries should be.

Friday, 24 November 2017

The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson
Dir: David France
David France's compelling documentary is remarkable in what it achieves but the title is ever so slightly misleading. Marsha P. Johnson was a well known character during the early days of gay rights activism, she was at Stonewall and was well known in the Greenwich Village area. Adored by all, Marsha was one of the first members of the trans community to be truly accepted, in part due to her gentle nature and likability. In 1992 she was found face-down floating in the Hudson River. The police declared suicide without much investigation but the community knew there was more to it than that as Marsha was not unhappy and had lots to live for and had also made future plans. Fast-forward to 2017 and we follow Victoria Cruz, a trans activist who moved in the same circles as Marsha, who has since devoted her life to the anti-violence project, an organization that aims to investigate and prevent violence against those in the LGBTQ community. She deals with many cases and explains that over the decades there has been thousands of hate crimes against LGBTQ people that most people aren't aware of. The justice for Marsha movement had continued for some time but here we see Cruz go back to the original investigation to see if she can find something that might have been missed and soon discovers the possibility of police cover ups and mob involvement. While the film becomes almost like a modern day Agatha Christie novel, the actual details become less important than the fact that these types of crimes, specifically involving LGBTQ people, are largely ignored. It is just Marsha's death though that is investigated, her life and transition are skipped over, which makes the title a little misleading. There is also just as much attention focused on trans activist Sylvia Rivera, if not more. Rivera was far more vocal within the movement and angered many homosexuals whom she accused of forgetting about trans people. It is largely thanks to her that trans people had a voice early on but what didn't help was that she was clearly a drug and alcohol addict. She became more famous later on when she became one of the many people evicted from one of the various piers of New York that was home to many homeless. She became a voice not just for trans people but the forgotten street people of New York, the discarded and abandoned. She got sober and spoke to crowds of people to cheers and jubilation, rather than the booing and hissing of the 1960s crowds. In many respects she deserved her own documentary, as did Marsha. The drug and alcohol addictions of the main players was frustrating to see, as these people were fighting for freedom and justice, while destroying themselves physically but those that survived still remember and come out to tell of their struggles. It is an astonishing story, not always told in the most methodical way but all of the key points come across - I just wish there was more detail, and truth be told, this should have been an investigative series, rather than a feature length documentary.
AileenLife and Death of a Serial Killer
Dir: Nick Broomfield
Nick Broomfield’s 1992 documentary, Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer, focused on the exploitation of America’s first female serial killer. Wuornos killed seven men while they were sleeping with her for money. She became a born again Christian when Arlene Pralle adopted her while she was in prison and converted her, before convincing her to plead guilty and face execution. Her lawyer was Steven Glazer, aka ‘Dr. Legal’, an ex-musician and old hippy who might possibly be the least tactful man ever to have worked in the legal system. During the initial investigation, the police were found to have compromised the proceedings by falsifying evidence while attaining the sale of the story to Hollywood producers. Broomfield was done with the story but had kept in contact with Wuornos, seeing the injustice she had suffered and feeling sympathy for her after knowing her true story. He may have intended a follow up film but he wasn’t expecting to be called as a witness to an evidentiary hearing. The film starts with Broomfield being called to the stand and his 1992 film discussed as a piece of evidence. His calm answers are a complete contrast to nearly every other witness and he puts the prosecution in its place beautifully but without malicious intent. As Broomfield spends time with other witnesses he gets to know many people from Wuornos’ past, learning of the hardship and abuse she grew up with. He shows the other side to the story, the side the far-right ignore and accuse anyone who mentions it a liberal fool. While many of the Christian-right feel a blood lust towards Wuornos, a small group of supporters try to express the injustice that has occurred, the unfairness of the original trial and the fact that Wuornos is clearly not of sound mind. By this point she is used as election leverage, Jeb Bush promising would-be voters that he would off her as soon as he possibly can, should they elect him – and it worked. In an attempt to please both sides of the argument, Bush orders several psychiatric examiners to evaluate Wuornos’ mental health before a death sentence is finally passed. It takes no more than fifteen minutes for them all to declare her sane and fit for lethal injection. Broomfield is given Wuornos’ last interview the day before her execution whereby she talks of being tortured while in prison and claims that the prison used "sonic pressure" to control and alter her mental state. Wuornos’ last words of execution were "I'd just like to say I’m sailing with the Rock, and I'll be back. Like Independence Day with Jesus, June 6, like the movie, big mothership and all. I'll be back." Broomfield, who becomes a point of interest after recording her last interview, is then hounded by the world’s press in the moments after she is put to death. Clambering for a bit of sensation, Broomfield simply asks the crowd if he is the only one who feels uncomfortable by the fact that someone who clearly has mental health issues has just been put to death and questions Bush’s psychiatric examiners who think talk of mind-controlling sonic pressure is a sane thing for a person to suspect. In the end, Wuornos wanted to die and fought against the people who tried to help her. It’s a sad tale with big implications, whether or not anything has been learned from it is another thing though. It’s a more focused film than the first and of a much higher quality but it’s far from rewarding – a brilliant film, but incredibly frustrating to watch.
Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer
Dir: Nick Broomfield
Before 1993’s Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer, charismatic documentary filmmaker Nick Broomfield was known for his serious films but also for injecting a level of humour in them. This would mark the first time that he was relatively straight-faced, but much like his documentaries of the past, there are plenty of laughable characters available to him. There is nothing funny about the murder of seven people of course and the film digs up a lot of sadness exploring Wuornos’s childhood, but when Broomfield is confronted with the likes of Arlene Pralle (who adopted Wuornos when she was in her 30s) and her lawyer (and ex-musician) Steve Glazer, you can’t help but be amused (and bemused). It’s classic Broomfield. The Aileen Wuornos case had been blown up to all proportions due to Wuornos being the first female ‘serial killer’, and because she only killed men, was a prostitute and a lesbian. The Christian far-right wanted her burned at the stake, and to some extend the other poor and downtrodden of Florida did too, as they had been through just as much hardship and had managed to not kill anyone. She was easy to dislike. She would smile and then snarl soon after, she could look extremely menacing and she was rather outspoken, often saying shocking things in court. She famously said that she hoped the judge’s wife and kids would be ‘raped in the ass’ sometime in the future when given her triple death sentence, even though she had pleaded guilty and suggested she wanted to die. The truth of the matter was that Wuornos was a damaged individual and the result of a hard upbringing. The far-right are unsympathetic to such people, indeed it is hard to find sympathy for mass murderers but I think it is easy to understand how she came to be what she was. Arlene Pralle, who had mental health issues of her own, had contacted Wuornos after she became famous for her murders, she converted her into a born again Christian and even convinced her that she should plead guilty and let God judge her. To be honest, the film wasn’t really about the murders or the motives, Broomfield does allude to the fact Wuornos was acting in self-defence, as each victim had been a brutal client seeking sex from her, and becoming violent and forceful. The fact that a previous rape conviction in which she was the victim was overturned is seen as the turning point in the decline of her mental health, as the saying goes, everyone has a breaking point. The film, as the title suggests, is actually all about how Wuornos’s story had been sold. People were making vast amounts of money from the sale of her tragic story. Not only was Arlene Pralle and Steve Glazer taking money left right and centre from interviews (including Broomfield) but so were the investigating Police officers, who altered the investigation in attaining Hollywood film rights. It’s never clear whether Arlene Pralle is all there, while Steve Glazer is the documentaries court jester, completely devoid of tact and utterly unaware of what is and isn’t appropriate at any given time – his advice for clients facing the electric chair being “Don’t sit down”. However, the serious issue, that of a corrupt police force abusing their power, is explored with a rewarding conclusion. The film is funny at times but the laughs generally come from pure disbelief that such a situation could arise from such a series of crimes. Broomfield’s approach is honest and simple, which is why out of hundreds of documentaries on the subject, his is the only one anyone remembers. Rare for such a film that contains absolutely no sensationalism. It's just a shame the picture quality is so poor.

Thursday, 23 November 2017

The Invitation
Dir: Karyn Kusama
Horror thrillers have been a little samey in recent years and I worried at first that The Invitation would be no different. However, it took very little time to realise there was something unique and special about it that separated it from its contemporaries. There is a wonderful uneasiness to it that I really admired and it continues all the way through until its dramatic conclusion. I believe that the viewer should never be comfortable when watching a horror/thriller and that can certainly be said of my personal watching experience. While I had an idea what the film was about and where it was headed, I didn’t expect the refreshingly clever finale. The cinematography is beautiful from the outset and it really adds something to the overall mood of the story. Luke Wilson, Zachary Quinto, Topher Grace and Johnny Galecki were originally cast as the film’s main characters but after a couple of years of re-writes a lesser known group of actors were cast and I think it was for the best. As much as I like the actors originally attached, I think the less-famous cast gave the story a more believable edge, and they all did a fantastic job too. Logan Marshall-Green’s performance as our unhinged protagonist was fantastic and something of an antidote to the usual male lead in most contemporary horrors. While some of the supporting characters could have had more development, at least they weren’t outright stereotypes. The real key to The Invitation’s success however is in its patience. It’s a slow-burner and utterly unapologetic about it. Most modern horrors jump straight in with gruesome murder or at least a jump scene but The Invitation treads slowly and with caution. It revels in its awkwardness and doesn’t pretend otherwise. This adds something of a profound sense of suspense that most horror films fail to understand while reminding us that the most frightening thing on this planet is other humans, and what we let them get away with unchallenged. The story isn’t without a sensationalist twist – which I thought worked really well – but at its heart is a very believable scenario. The overall conclusion eludes to something much bigger though, and that is what makes the film so clever. You could attach almost any way of thinking to the film’s ending and realise that us humans are more than capable of it and are, indeed, guilty of it. Gore is easy, slasher films are cheap and masked monsters wielding knives and chasing teenagers are no longer scary, but when you can insert a feeling of impending doom in the viewer and sustain it for the entirety of a film, then you have mastered the true art of horror.

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)
Dir: Noah Baumbach
The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) is the story of three dysfunctional siblings who live in the shadow of their successful father. It’s written and directed by Noah Baumbach and stars Dustin Hoffman, Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller and sounds like the sort of film you’ve seen a hundred times before. Indeed, Dustin Hoffman has played Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller’s father before in separate movies, Dustin Hoffman has been romantically linked to Emma Thompson before (she plays his wife) and Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller have played dysfunctional people with dysfunctional siblings before – many times. This is a film whereby you know exactly what to expect, however, I would argue that it is the best of the bunch. Sure it’s familiar and somewhat formulaic, but there are certain elements that really make it stand out and make it special. Firstly, the performances are brilliant. Baumback has clearly written the characters with each actor in mind, he’s given them great roles, ones that really play to their individual strengths. Secondly, the structure is really quite fresh. The film is separated into chapters which isn’t a new thing, but the way it is edited, extending certain unexpected scenes and cutting others abruptly, gives the film a certain edge over its contemporaries. Dustin Hoffman and Ben Stiller are both on great form but Adam Sandler has never been better (and I include Punch-Drunk Love in that statement). I’m generally not a Sandler fan, it is frustrating seeing his unfunny comedies when he is clearly a good actor and capable of so much more. The real unsung performances however are from Emma Thompson and Elizabeth Marvel. Thompson plays Hoffman’s alcoholic fourth wife perfectly, and Marvel, who stated that she based her performance on John Cazale’s performance as Fredo Corleone in the Godfather films (which I can totally see), is tremendous as Sandler and Stiller’s sister. Hoffman plays Harold Meyerowitz, a successful but forgotten artist, who has become set in his ways, oblivious (maybe subconsciously in denial) that his wife is still an alcoholic, although she proclaims otherwise, and that his three children have deep-rooted social issues stemming from their unorthodox upbringing. Danny (Sandler) and Jean (Marvel) were brought up with little parenting and although they resent their father, they still feel warmth for him. Their half-brother Matthew (Stiller) was brought up by his mother but always had his fathers full attention and was the child he expected the most from. Matthew fled the nest as soon as he could and moved to LA. When Danny splits from his wife, he decides to move in temporarily with his father so that he can be close to his daughter who has just started University in the City. He spends time with his father, his sister and eventually Matthew who is in town on business. When Harold becomes ill during a retrospective show of his work the siblings reconnect and explore their past lives. It is an incredibly rewarding comedy-drama that works due to the great writing and great performances. During the 2017 Cannes Film Festival Sandler and Stiller stated in an interview that playing brothers in the film was one of the best experiences of their careers, as it allowed them to grow closer as friends and this is quite clear in the film. Baumbach is a great writer and as great director but more than that he is a great composer. It is everyone on peak form, a very simple tale but told exceptionally well.
Rat Race
Dir: Jerry Zucker
Rat Race. Otherwise known as It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad Rip Off! I absolutely adore Stanley Kramer’s 1963 comedy epic, I was never against the idea that the original story shouldn’t be given a modern update, but I was always opposed to it being remade. While Rat Race wasn’t a remake, it rather insulted the original in its tribute. I liked the change of story; Donald Sinclair, the eccentric owner of The Venetian Resort in Las Vegas, devises a new game to entertain the wealthier gamblers who visit his hotel, who have tired of the conventional betting games. Six special tokens are placed in the casino's slot machines, and the winners are told that $2 million in cash is hidden in a duffel bag in a train station locker in Silver City, New Mexico 563 miles southeast of Las Vegas. Each team is given a key to the locker and told to race to the train station to claim the money. However, unbeknownst to the competitors, Sinclair's wealthy patrons are placing bets on who will win. The patrons continue making smaller bets throughout the film, facilitated by Sinclair's assistant Grisham, who meddles with the competitor’s chances to make the game more even. It makes far more sense in 2001 than the original plot would have and John Cleese was the perfect choice as Donald Sinclair. While the premise of It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World was a little far-fetched, it didn’t really matter because you could believe that greed could push people to the extreme. The plot was simple, it was the little stories within that really made it special and every single story was brilliant. It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World also had the cream of the comedy world at its disposal, with everybody who was anybody in the funny business involved. Rat Race had Vince Wieluf. If you are looking up who Vince Wieluf is right now then my point is proven. Okay, so it does feature Rowan Atkinson, Cuba Gooding Jr., Whoopi Goldberg, Seth Green, Dave Thomas, Wayne Knight, Jon Lovitz and Kathy Najimy but I’m afraid the cast is pale in comparison. I would also say that, apart from Cleese, only Jon Lovitz and Kathy Najimy are actually funny. However, the mini stories within the film are generally brilliant. Lovitz and Najimy’s characters visit a Klaus Barbie museum after mistakenly thinking it was a Barbie doll museum. They end up stealing Hitler’s car to escape. In another scene, Cuba Gooding Jr’s character hitches a ride with a coach party full of cross-dressing Lucille Ball fanatics. It is definitely my kind of silly, but, the cast generally don’t have the required physical comedy skills to do the skits justice. Rowan Atkinson pretty much plays Mr Bean, which I found particularly lazy of the filmmakers. It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World has a hundred memorable scenes and quotes, Rat Race has about three. The ending of It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World is one of my favourite of all time, with each character taking it in turn to fall from a two-hundred foot crane, after their greed gets the better of them. In Rat Race the characters attend a Smash Mouth concert and stage dive to ‘All Star’, which is probably the worst song ever written. All Star is a song that used to frequent end credits quite a lot back in the day. It was usually the last insult from a bad film. Rat Race is worse in that it actually features Smash Mouth themselves. It is probably the least rewarding conclusion to a film ever conceived – the complete opposite to It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. A half-hearted idea that should probably have never been made.

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Mary and Max
Dir: Adam Elliot
It is rare that a film is both heart warming and heart breaking at the same time, but 2009's Mary & Max is a wonderful exception. Adam Elliot has excelled himself after the success of his short film Harvey Krumpet - which was a hard act to follow - and has cemented himself as one of my favourite writer/directors of all time (just after two films). Mary & Max is a claymation (I hate that description) tale to be cherished, although your enjoyment is probably based on your general outlook on life. Are you a half full or half empty sort of person, can you see the silver lining to every cloud, can you see truth beyond the fog of uncertainty and do you see beauty in that which is generally considered ugly? If not, Mary & Max can still show you the way, just give them that chance and you will be rewarded. If you’re a sour old philistine who loves a bit of glorious misery from time to time (like me) then I envy you seeing this for the first time - I wish I could again. Inspired by Elliot’s own pen-pal relationship of twenty years, Mary and Max tells the story of a young Mary (voiced by Toni Collette) who lives in Australia. Lonely, bullied and neglected by her mother and stepfather, Mary only has her pet rooster Ethel for company. One afternoon she visits the local post office with her mother and spots a New York City phone book near a phone booth. On uncharacteristic impulse, she decides to pick an address at random and write to the occupant, who turns out to be Max (voiced by Philip Seymour Hoffman), an obese Jewish atheist in his mid-forties who has Asperger’s syndrome. The pair write to each other and form a close bond but are constantly effected by their social anxiety, depression and families. The things that happen to the pair are hilarious and utterly tragic at the same time. Both Philip Seymour Hoffman and Toni Collette are brilliant in their voice work but I love that the whole film is narrated by Barry Humphries. Mary and Max is the only film I can think of that not only explores subjects such as autism (Asperger syndrome in particular), childhood neglect, loneliness, isolation, depression and anxiety, but represents them honestly. What movie producer wants to try and sell a film with those subjects and who really wants to go and see it? Adam Elliot has taken things that people don’t talk about, things that are still ridiculously taboo and has made an honest, funny and touching film about them, that is terrifically entertaining and universal. The animation itself is perfect, I am sure it was as painstaking as it looks (Filming lasted over fifty-seven weeks, using one hundred and thirty-three sets, two-hundred and twelve puppets and four-hundred and seventy-five props, including Max’s fully functional typewriter that took nine weeks to design and build alone) but very much worth it. The choice to make it mainly black and white and in muted colours was also brilliantly conceived and it should be regarded as one of the most remarkable neo-noirs of the last few decades. It’s of a unique sort of humour but one that I adore, there is no other film like it, it’s a true gem and one of my very favourites.

Monday, 20 November 2017

Justice League
Dir: Zack Snyder
I didn't like it. I really wanted to, but I just didn't like it. Man of Steel was mediocre, Batman vs Superman was underdeveloped and Wonder Woman, while being the best from DC so far, was overrated. I had no expectations from Justice League, however, as ever, I went into it with an open mind. The big problem I've had throughout the DC movies so far has been the casting. Apart from Gal Gadot, who is brilliant as Wonder Women, and Ben Affleck in Batman vs Superman, I haven't agreed with any of the casting decisions, and I still stand by that. Unfortunately, in Justice League Gal Gadot isn't given as much to work with and Ben Affleck already looks as if he has tired of the role. I have no emotional investment in any of these characters, and when you don't care, you don't enjoy. The action scenes were samey and uninventive, the interaction between each character was lazy and non-eventful and the story was lame. I really don't want to compare any of the DC films to the Marvel ones, but Justice League really does feel like a cheap copy. The infinity stones seems to have been replaced by three boxes, Thanos is replaced by Steppenwolf - who looks like a poor mans version of Skeletor and the whole thing just seemed like a hurried Avengers Assemble. Anyone who has even the most vague knowledge of comics will know that Marvel and DC have been in competition with each other for many decades and would often compete with different versions of what were essentially the same characters and situations. I wouldn't have cared in the slightest if DC had gone for a total carbon copy of what Marvel had done, I don't think anyone would, but instead they've tried to compete, copy and rush things, and it really has been detrimental to the characters and the story. Watching Justice League is like watching a story with no ending, a film with so many rewrites that it doesn't know what it is, only that it had to be released on a certain day. There is no character development whatsoever. Wonder Woman has had her own film but Batman, Aquaman, The Flash and Cyborg haven't. I can't say I have any interest in an Aquaman, Cyborg or a Flash film either after their inclusion in Justice League. This is a colour-by-numbers superhero film, with nothing of interest or originality. Steppenwolf is possibly the least scary/impressive bad guy DC have ever produced and he could have wiped the floor with the Justice League and I wouldn't have cared less. I don't feel the film was made with much confidence either. They needed to take a risk, inject something of their own, but instead they produced the most predictable film they could have ever come up with. The only scene I liked came half-way through but even that was a huge wasted opportunity. This was meant to be an event, instead it looked like a sad cosplay party. The one thing the film should have pointed out was, that following the death of Superman, the combined efforts of the Justice League could take on all evils without him, but they couldn't. Batman has spent ages putting the team together, only for them to fail without supes. Literally, the only exciting moment of the film was the post-credits hint at what is to come next. How ridiculous. Maybe they just wanted to get it out of the way, do the whole team up thing and get on with new and exciting stories, but so far they've barely managed to get anything right and even then I feel that they got lucky. Okay, so both versions of Quicksilver have made The Flash a tricky character to make original, but I would argue that Flash comics are so much better than Quicksilver ones. DC needs to have a bit of confidence and also to pull their finger out. There are some great stories within their archive, they just need to steer away from the more successful ones, because as popular as Doomsday/Death of Superman etc were, they are by far the most overrated. The seriousness doesn't work, the attempts at comedy really don't work but most importantly, nothing seems to gel together. The special effects are also pretty horrible. The last big action scene sees civilians being chased down a road by what appears to be a purple worm that looks like it could have come from an episode of cult 90s sci-fi show LEXX. That said, LEXX was far more interesting, was way more inventive and had better characters. I'm not having a go at DC because I'm a Marvel fan either, I base my opinions on merit, I want to be a fan of both, and classically I have always been a DC reader. I love my Superman and I love Batman and Wonder Woman but I just don't see this incarnation of Justice League as authentic. The story is basic and old, nothing held my attention, there was no suspense or intrigue and, apart from the Marc McClure cameo, there was nothing that impressed me. It feels like the DC films are being made by people who have little passion for DC characters, or who have totally lost focus on what they should be doing, what they could achieve and see the films as more of a race against Marvel then anything else. They are the ones making us compare them to Marvel, when really they should be making us do the exact opposite. At this point I'm not even disappointed, I'm just perplexed about how wrong they got it - again.

Rocky VI
Dir: Aki Kaurismäki
Aki Kaurismaki’s Rocky VI is the director at his most playful. It’s a short parody of the Rocky films that was released in 1986 – coming a year after Rocky IV, the specific Rocky film is pokes fun at. It actually came a whole two decades before the actual Rocky VI and is no less ridiculous. It’s clear aim was to make fun of Rocky IV’s silly USA vs. USSR storyline and shows a fight that sees both countries in a completely different stereotype, with the American boxer being weak, unprepared and malnourished, while the Russian opponent is overweight, drunk on vodka and a little more thick-skinned. There is less to the fighters than there is of their managers and promoters, who are seen to enjoy many luxuries, gourmet food and plenty of drink. Unlike the real Rocky, the American boxer loses after being knocked out fairly early on in the fight. Kaurismaki relishes every minute, later describing the short film as “my revenge on Mr. Stallone, who I think is an asshole”. It’s a lovely little protest against American films that were fuelled by cold war themes that were a little too black and white for the rest of the world. It has become something of a favourite at film festivals and is staple education at film schools around the world. I like everything about it, but more than that, as a huge Aki Kaurismaki fan, it’s a wonderful example of his development and the source of many of his greatest works. It’s playfulness and the comradery within is a clear influence on the Leningrad Cowboys films and plays like a short but mature advance of Calamari Union. However, it also marks the last time Kaurismaki moved about as much. His films soon became rather static, like oil paintings, more refined if you will. Rocky VI is a bit punk, a playful protest but without the anarchy. There is an element of controlled chaos about it, which is a wonderful bit of sleight of hand that made many of his early works so appealing. It was great seeing such European directors fighting back as it were against the onslaught of tiresome Hollywood blockbusters. I can think of many who protested like Kaurismaki did but none that did is so directly and with such panache.

Friday, 17 November 2017

I Am Not Your Negro
Dir: Raoul Peck
Born in New York in 1924, James Baldwin was the eldest of nine. His mother left his father because of his drug abuse and James was left to look after his eight younger half-siblings. His stepfather, a Harlem preacher, was tougher on James than on his biological children and the persecution he suffered had a lasting effect on him. He found solace in a local library and by age fourteen, he knew he wanted to be a writer. At age ten, James was abused by a couple of New York police officers, something that was repeated a few years later as a teenager. He witnessed it happen to other young black men and decided to write about it in his first essay. His intelligence was recognised and encouraged at school and at the age of thirteen, he wrote his first article titled ‘Harlem – Then and Now’. His stepfather died in 1943 and his funeral was held on his nineteenth birthday and on the day of the Harlem riot of ’43. The day had a profound effect on James for many reasons and he wrote about it in the critically acclaimed essay ‘Notes of a Native Son’ in which he tried to find an answer, or at least explain, social and family rejection and to attain a sense of belonging and selfhood, which a consistent theme in his work. Baldwin wrote essays, novels and plays, most of which explore fundamental personal questions and dilemmas of fictional characters amid real complex social and psychological pressures thwarting the equitable integration not only of African Americans, but also of gay and bisexual men, while depicting some internalized obstacles to such individuals' quests for acceptance. His work, including; Notes of a Native Son (1955), Giovanni’s Room (1956), The Fire Next Time (1963), No Name in the Street (1972) and The Devil Finds Work (1976) are now considered modern classics. In the mid-eighties Baldwin began writing Remember This House, a manuscript that was his own reminiscences of close friends and murdered civil rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr, as well as his personal observations of American history. Baldwin died in 1987 of stomach cancer, leaving the manuscript unfinished. Following Baldwin's death, his publishing company sued his estate to recover the $200,000 advance they had paid him for the book, although the lawsuit was dropped by 1990. Director Raoul Peck wanted had wanted to make a film about his hero for some time; the question was just what kind of film it would be. "We tried everything," “We tried different forms. I worked with a playwright. I worked with a screenwriter at one point. They were not bad ideas – they just weren't the monument I felt I had to do that would make Baldwin who he is and ensure that his legacy would stay forever. I knew that I had to find an incredible, original form that would be at the level of something that he could have done." Peck approached Baldwin’s estate a decade before work started on the film. "The strange thing is that I couldn’t say to them, 'Well, I do not want the option for one particular book. I want an option for the whole body of work and the option to the man, to the biography ... everything.'" It was rare for Baldwin’s estate to provide access to his archive, but he got approval because Baldwin's sister Gloria Karefa-Smart, the estate’s executor, had seen several of his previous films and liked them. "I just told the truth, I told them what he meant to me, why I wanted to do a film – but also that I did not know yet what the film would be. I said, 'I just need the time to work on it.'" Eventually it was decided that a feature documentary based on Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript, that was just a collection of notes, letters and accounts of meetings, was the perfect and logical way of tribute. It took the best part of a decade to put together the narrative and to attain archive footage, by which point America had gone through some changes. The Black Lives Matter movement had become prominent in the news, as was a string of shootings of unarmed black men and women. Baldwin’s voice rang true once again and Peck explored present day with the history of America that Baldwin had spoken of to paint a broad picture of inequality. Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson in Baldwin’s voice, I Am Not Your Negro is a brutal account, through observation, of a history of troubled relations. Not only are the approaches of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr compared, but the nature of persecution is explored, through the effect that religion, teaching, media and film can have on society. While I wasn’t a huge fan of the way the documentary is structured, I do think that Peck gets across the overall message of Baldwin’s that in order to challenge such issues one needs to challenge oneself. It is easy for a white man like myself to proclaim that racism is about ignorance vs understanding, rather than Black vs white but I’ve never been persecuted or seen as less than human. Thirty years after his death, Baldwin’s words still ring true, hearing them inter-played with images of today come as an important and sobering reminder of not how far we’ve come but how far we’ve yet to go.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Dir: Steve Barron
May I have 698 words with you? Based on a Saturday Night Live sketch from the early 80s, critics and audiences panned Coneheads upon its 1993 release but personally, I think it has aged remarkably well. I didn’t see it when it came out, it looked a bit rubbish if I’m being honest and I thought in 1993 that it was a little passed its sell by date. While there is something very ‘80s’ about it, I would argue that it intentionally avoids certain clichés of the decade. For instance, the Coneheads – a family of aliens stranded on planet earth – are never registered as different by any of the humans they encounter. As their name suggests, they have huge cone-shaped heads and speak scientifically but their colleagues and neighbours see them as eccentrics and nothing more. This is quite refreshing and helps move the story along so it can concentrate on the more comical and less obvious aspects of the situation. Since 1993, the issue of immigration has become heated debate, so on reflection it is rather nice to see a cheerful and upbeat film that expresses the positivity of the subject. The Coneheads have their own belief system, customs and traditions but they also embrace America and its way of life. There is actually very little that is ‘alien’ about the film. While it may come across as a goofy film about funny shaped extra-terrestrials, it is actually a rather tender look at society, belonging, adapting and embracing. It’s pretty funny too. It might be that in 1993, many comedy films relied on catchphrases and certain characteristics that made them stand out. It seemed that most Hollywood scriptwriters were more concerned about getting one of their new made-up words into society’s consciousness than they were actually writing memorable stories. I remember many a classmate adding the word ‘not’ after saying something they didn’t mean (Wayne’s World) and it becoming quite tiresome, but thankfully the rather meaningless ‘Sta-tion’ (Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey) came and went within a week or so. I do remember people referring to their mothers and fathers as ‘Parental units’ though and a few of them still do. While Coneheads may have seeped into some people’s vocabulary, it is purely out of good writing and I would argue that its script is one of the best comedy scripts of the early 90s. Tenderness and comedy are not always the easiest things to merge but Coneheads manages it effortlessly; “If, for some reason your life functions ceased, my most precious one, I would collapse, I would draw the shades and I would live in the dark. I would never get out of my slar pad or clean myself. My fluids would coagulate, my cone would shrivel, and I would die, miserable and lonely. The stench would be great.” It is classic Dan Aykroyd, and the last lead performance of his that has been truly great. I love his and Jane Curtin’s chemistry; she is brilliant and perfect in the role. I love the silliness of their ‘alienisms’ and how it is actually observational humour, making point on our own funny rituals. I like the cheesy poster. I really love it all. Unappreciated at the time, I feel now, with lady nostalgia by my side, that this is something of a delayed classic. Seriously, there are not many comedies of its ilk made since that are as funny. The supporting cast is awesome, it includes; Sinbad, David Spade, Michael McKean, Adam Sandler, Drew Carey, Dave Thomas, Parker Posey, Jason Alexander, Michael Richards, Ellen DeGeneres, Jon Lovitz, Tom Arnold and the late Phil Hartman and Chris Farley. Comedians and Saturday Night Live regulars all at the top of their game at the time. The physical comedy is actually brilliant, each cameo performance is delivered perfectly, no matter how short and simple it may be. You may not like the film but you cannot deny its charm. Seriously, when Dan Aykroyd’s Beldar confesses to his daughter “Your positive perception of me is vital to my existence. Besides, it is not every day a father can give the world to his child.” I nearly almost cried. Coneheads deserves some love and it gets plenty from me.