Thursday, 29 March 2012

Six Sues Laser

News has come through from Ilona Six that all is not well in the pre-production land of The Human Centipede 3 [Final Sequence].  Below is the official statement from Six Entertainment.

Tom Six's company will sue Dieter Laser.

Because of the success of The Human Centipede, it seems that Mr Dieter Laser's ego has grown to laughably big proportions. First signing the contract and rating the THC3 script as fantastic, and then demanding his own unacceptable script changes, and now refusing to play the part only seven weeks prior to shooting. Six Entertainment Company will start legal action against Dieter Laser. Tom Six says not to worry - principal photography will be postponed and will take place later this year.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre [1974]

Certificate: 18
Running time: 83 mins
Director: Tobe Hooper
Starring: Marilyn Burns, Edwin Neal, Gunnar Hansen, Allen Danziger
Genre: Horror, Thriller
Country: USA

It’s the last week of the term, the last week of Hixploitation and it’s the ultimate Hillbilly Horror film.  Director Tobe Hooper’s true classic see five friends on a road trip amidst a spate of grave robberies in the pan handle as they stumble upon a family of cannibals and one very memorable man, Leatherface.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre continues on from The Town That Dreaded Sundown’s theme of being part of a cinema of trauma.  Chainsaw Massacre, being set in 1973, sees five friends, three males and two of which are able bodied travelling across the South of America in a camper van.  The relevancy of the two able bodied College kids is an interesting one as they have managed to avoid the draft.  The Vietnam War wages on and, the contemporary Hollywood movement is under way and therefore cinema is perfectly primed to reflect on physical and psychological trauma.  Psychologically to deal with the issues born out of the very fresh Vietnam War would be too emotionally damaging, the trauma is displaced and set against a smaller, more personal conflict that allows for further and brutal interrogation.  The physical assaults on the well to do “City Folk” by the working class men of the South is a retaliation for the notion that never before have so many with so little have fought so hard for so few who have so much.  The working class brutalisation of the upper class is a strike for balance.

It’s remarkable that, when made, Tobe Hooper was aiming for a PG certificate.  In his mind with the films lack of sex, minimum use of profanity and restricted depiction of physical violence that it was a shoe in for a low certificate.  In peeling back from the presentable Hooper has made the trauma, the horror, the fear intensely psychological.  The opening sequence with the fatty corpses is a reminder, if needed, not to watch the film while eating (a rule that I had forgotten about recently).  Hooper’s lingering camera is uncomfortable in a way that has means you only have yourself to blame.  Hooper, at least in Chainsaw Massacre, is a counter intuitive director and this aspect is fascinating.  There are moments in the film were you expect him to draw the audiences eye in, to present them with a close up.  You expect it when the gang kick the Hitchhiker (Edwin Neal) out of the camper van, you expect it when Pam is placed on the hanging meat hook and is forced to watch Kirk’s fate but rather than present the audience with an obvious horror, one of instant gratification and fear, Hooper’s camera keeps it’s distance and in doing so not only forces the audience to capture the close up in their minds eye but also highlights just how alone, distant and helpless they truly are.  His use of framing and light is exemplary and is never showcased better than Leatherface’s pursuit of Sally from the house through the surrounding woods and to the gas station.  It’s the use of controlled lighting that leaves the audience scanning for details, in the way you would if you were in fact in the dark.

The script is tired, it leaves little room for surprise and when Hooper says he came up with the idea for the film when he was in a hardware store looking at chainsaws in the sale that he probably came up with the entire script as it’s simple.  It’s simple but still beautiful.

The cast are, as you would expect in a low budget horror, William Vail (as Kirk), Allen Danzinger (Jerry) and Teri McMinn (Pam) are all solid performers but aren’t given a great deal to operate with as their character development is minimal as we’re not to get too attached to them.  Paul A. Partain (Franklin) is probably the most interesting character of the five, he comes across as awkward, slightly autistic perhaps, childish and resentful.  He’s also more than a little annoying a whiny.  It’s an interesting portrayal of someone with a physical disability, it speaks of the period in which the film was shot (pre disability charter) but most interesting and perhaps depressingly it's a depiction that hasn’t changed a great deal in four decades with regards to helplessness and asexualisation.  Marilyn Burns (as Sally) gives a realistic and heart felt performance, though if she could keep the screaming down she might have stood a chance of out running Leatherface.  Of all those involved in the film she is the one that the audience develops a connection with, it’s instantaneous and lasting.  Gunnar Hansen is sadly the biggest casualty of the film.  As Leatherface he is mesmerising, frightening and subdued.  Remarkably his level of untheatricality makes the character even more memorable and like Anthony Perkins this good work is probably the reason that Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers, Brutal Massacre : A Comedy and most recently Reykjavik Whale Watching Massacre are the cliff notes of his acting career.  The true star of the film is Hooper, he is remembered for several horror films but for my money this is his one true masterpiece.

Subscribers of the Cahiers du Cinema’s Auteur theory will be familiar with the idea of Auteur and of a directors signature, equally as important is Cahiers classification of a Mettre un Cine.  One of the most famous Mettre un Cine’s is Michael Curtiz who, for the most part, made enjoyable but un-unique cinematic offerings with the exception of one masterpiece.  The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is Hooper’s Casablanca, a terrifying and brutally psychological Casablanca that almost forty years later is still as fresh and fantastic as it was when it was released.  Truly terrific, truly terrifying.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

The Winning Season

Certificate: 12
Running time: 119 mins
Director: James C. Strouse
Starring: Sam Rockwell, Emma Roberts, Rob Corddry, Rooney Mara
Genre: Comedy, Sport
Country: USA

Down and out College Basketball coach Bill (Sam Rockwell) is slumming it bussing tables and eating leftovers when he’s given the opportunity to coach again by friend Terry (Corddry) who’s girls' team is without a coach, skill, fitness and a victory.

First off let me disclose that I love Sam Rockwell, he’s a fantastic actor who is always interesting and refreshing in every role he is in.  Whether it’s Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Moon, Welcome To Collinwood or even Charlie’s Angels Rockwell makes everything better.  The Winning Season has a distinctly generic Sports film storyline, washed up coach takes on group of losers and in attempting to turns them into winners he finds his own salvation.  This is not a spoilers, it’s not going to affect your enjoyment of the film at all.  It’s like telling someone who likes Romantic Comedies that the film is about a guy and a girl who can’t stand each other yet over the course of the film they’re thrown together and eventually fall in love.  The Sports film is well travelled ground and it’s not what happens rather than the way in which it happens that's seemingly important in them.

Rockwell is at his best when he plays characters with flaws or shortcomings, that was the case with his Chuck Barris and the same can be said here.  Bill is a drunk, an absent parent and is down right miserable but has some fantastically comedic lines.  His relationship with his team is, initially, strained and comes to a head when they criticise him (mid game) about him referring to one of the other team as “the big girl” which apparently is cruel and promotes negative self image.  He’s a Beta-Max player in the land of Blu-Ray yet it’s his traditional outlook in life that makes him endearing, both to the audience and to the players on his team and his relationship with the girls, primarily Kathy (Emily Rios), Abby (Emma Roberts) and Stacey (Jessica Hecht) is sweet and showcases a tenderness that he’s almost incapable of reaching around his own daughter Wendy (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’s Rooney Mara).  Rob Corddry is hilariously awkward as Terry (the School’s Headmaster), he was the saving grace of the woeful Hot Tub Time Machine, the bland What Happens in Vegas and it’s a real shame that his Sleazy Superman was left on the cutting room floor in The Muppets.  His red shirt and trousers combo make him look a little like a demented superhero.  His character is slightly reminiscent of David Lochary (Multiple Maniacs & Pink Flamingos) and highlights the occasional quirkiness that comes with small town America.  Emma Roberts is a fine piece of casting, she has an angelic quality that comes with small town life and is enough of a resemblance to Mara that her relationship with Bill can operate on a Father-Daughter level.  Since working with Joel Schumacher in Twelve she has entered the difficult post child/teen star era and only time will tell as to whether she successfully navigates it ala Dakota Fanning or becomes another casualty to sit alongside Haley Joel Osment in the awkward waiting room of stardom past.

Strouse’s direction is conventional, unchallenging and is very much by the numbers, though not without a degree of style.  The framing of the training scenes and the graphics depicting the teams run are small touches but welcoming.  The decision to write and direct this particular film, after 2007’s Grace is Gone is an interesting one and one that points at a director who is chronicling aspects of life that have helped shape him and if this is the case hopefully there’s more to come from Strouse and with any luck as his voice becomes more mature and sure of itself his directorial style will become more assured and complex.  It's a shame that with the talents of Rockwell, Roberts and Mara on board that (to use a Sports similie) Strouse played for the draw.  With every passing Sports drama comes the opportunity to break the mold and push beyond ground previously covered.  Field of Dreams is the perfect example of a Sports film that exists both within the conventions of the genre yet at the same time has chartered territory unexplored before or since.

The Winning Season coasts through the conventions of the Sports film leaving it unchallenged and as it found it.  It's an enjoyable enough film but it doesn't appear to want to challenge anything, it doesn’t have many aspirations beyond making you laugh at a man who can barely deal with one daughter inherits ten.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Counterforce / Escuadrón

Certificate: 18
Running time: 98 mins
Director: José Antonio de la Loma
Starring: Jorge Rivero, Isaac Hayes, Robert Forster, Louis Jourdan
Genre: Action
Country: USA/Mexico/Spain

As a child I went through two VHS copies of this film with my merciless watching and rewatching.  It was one of the first films that came to mind when I was compiling my list of 100 Other Films so it’s odd that it’s taken this long to actually review the film.

A U.S Special Forces team are dispatched to aid a Middle Eastern leader who’s been greenlit by a Dictator, played by Robert Forster, of a neighbouring country.  Can the team prevent the assassination and restore peace?

As we join the Counterforce they’re in the middle of a training exercise set up by their Operations Chief Vince Colby, played by the excellent George Kennedy.  The training op is a little bit shy with regards to budget and sophistication, you might think that it’s probably because it’s just a training exercise…but you’d be wrong.  The vast majority of the film has a slightly skimped upon look as the budget wasn’t much and was most likely spent on securing such extravagant names like Isaac Hayes, George Kennedy and Robert Forster.  The opening title sequence looked dated even when I watched it for the first time, which wouldn’t have been longer than a year and a half after it’s release.  The heavy use of 1980’s sync and power guitar boxes the film firmly in the yuppy decade but not in a bad way.  It’s 80’s and heavily dated in the best possible way, large hair, double denim and loud jackets it’s aged in the same way that Michael Mann’s Manhunter has aged.  Yes the style, cinematography and score all have an expiration date but it’s never gets old nor loses it’s addiction, just like Iron Butterfly or Wang Chung.

The Jourdan / Forster political rivalry is pure cinematic gold.  Jourdan trained under René Simon (founder of the Cours Simon drama school) and is probably the biggest casting coup of the film.  Every scene he’s in he owns yet he brings the best out of those around him.  His scenes with Harris (Jorge Rivero) are tension, emotional and even tinged with regret as his principles edges his life closer and closer to danger, similarly his relationship with his wife Roxana (played by Susana Dosamantes) has all the complexity and emotion of a real marriage.  Forster has less screen time and looking back now there are Arab stereotypes that sit uncomfortably yet at the same time he’s played with many levels of grey.  The scene in which his tent is attacked, almost killing him, convinces him that Kassar (Jourdan) is out to get him, it actually in part lessens the severity of his actions and makes you wonder whether he’d be the “good guy” if the U.S Government considered him to be useful in the region.  When you look at Forster’s portrayal of a Middle Eastern Dictator and then at the forthcoming Dictator starring Sasha Baron Cohen it makes you wonder how we’ve allowed cinematic intelligence to recede over the past three decades.  Jorge Rivero has an amazing presence on screen.  Rivero (as Harris) is arguably a little too old to be operating in the field as he would have been 50 at the time of release but the star of Rio Lobo has not lost a inch of his muscular presence and is entirely believable in the physically demanding role of Team Leader of the Counterforce.  He also has some of the great 1980’s comedy lines that are a must for an action film.  At 50 the looks of the Mexican sex symbol have begun to fade but all this does is put the onus on his acting ability, which he has in spades.  Isaac Hayes is a waste, Hayes at his best is an incredible action hero you only have to look at Truck Turner to see how he whoops ass and takes name.  Sadly he’s not given a great deal to work with and  he spends most of the film listening to music and establishing one half of a great action movie odd couple with Sutherland (Kevin Bernhardt).

Put alongside a Hollywood action film Counterforce will stand a slim chance of being looked on as a great film, it’s not a Die Hard or a Lethal Weapon, it’s budget is too small, director de la Loma (for all his qualities) is a cinematic technician rather than an Auteur.  It is, however, a perfect example of what’s great about Exploitation cinema.  It’s not quite in the same league as Kung Fu Cannibals for example but it is an exceptionally enjoyable and rewatchable (as my ten year old self will confirm) film Action film and wonderful escapism.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Supersonic Man

Certificate: Unrated
Running time: 88 mins
Director: Juan Piquer Simón
Starring: Michael Coby, Cameron Mitchell, José Luis Ayestarán, Diana Polakov
Genre: Adventure, Fantasy, Comedy
Country: Spain

The evil Dr. Gulik has plans on destroying the Galaxy and only an alien sent to Earth can save mankind…Supersonic to the rescue!  The film poses a lot of questions, the correlation between PhDs and mental instability is one, where exactly is Gulik planning on living once he’s destroyed the Galaxy…yes Galaxy is another, not to mention why does he use his powers to turn guns into bananas but without doubt the biggest question is probably why do I let this film get to me.

It is, granted, right up my street.  Like 3 Supermen Against Godfather, The Super Inframan not to mention the fantastic Lucha Libre films of Santos and Blue Demon it sports a not so super hero.  This is one of the most troublesome reviews you’ll find as on a surface level everything about this film is ditties but yet I love it, most people do when they watch it.  It flirts outrageously with the ‘sooo bad it’s good’ category that houses films like Troll 2 and it’s in it’s shortcoming that you see the films real heart.

The score is an ear worm of a jingle, close enough that if you were unfamiliar with John Williams’ Superman theme that you might unwittingly mistake it for his…just for a moment, yet it’s distinct, repetitive and heart warming.  It’s that piece of music from the end of level boss that you just couldn’t get passed on the NES, it’s Adam West’s elevator music and it draws you in.  The visual effects are…they’re bad, you probably shouldn’t even call them effects it raises your expectations too high.  There are moments when Supersonic is flying over New York City that would have made George Reeves blush as the film stock footage doesn’t match that of Supersonic, the colour palette is wrong, the aspect ratio is a little screwy and it does that age old mistake of showing the audience far too much.  It is however better than the night flying sequences which are clearly shot against a painted backdrop of the city, as done by an 8 year old child with no fingers.  Two exceptions are the opening sequence before Kronos (aka Supersonic) is sent to Earth, it has an aesthetic to it that still excites me each time I watch the film and the robot which is ridiculously awesome.

Michael Coby (aka Antonio Cantafora) is wide of most marks, his concern comes across (at times) as predatory and creepy and when he’s playing it straight you’re pretty much guaranteed to get the biggest laughs but he's inherently likeable.  There’s also the small issue that Coby (as Paul) the alter ego of Supersonic looks absolutely nothing like José Luis Ayestarán who plays Supersonic.  Why they didn’t have Coby play both roles is beyond me…why they didn’t have Coby shave off his moustache (Ayestarán is clean shaven throughout) is beyond me.  It’s like having Wesley Snipes playing Batman to Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne.  Ayestarán isn’t called into much other than flying against backdrops, stealing wine for a hobo from a restaurant, turning guns into bananas and stumbling through the odd line of dialogue.  Cameron Mitchell (Blood and Black Lace) is actually brilliant as Dr. Gulik, he’s the one bright spark in the whole thing and showcases a level of theatricality mixed with believability that belongs to a much better film.

For all of it’s shortcomings and Supersonic Man is a movie of shortcomings you can’t help but love it.  The film is by no mean feat significantly less than the sum of it’s parts but it’s parts are so lovingly constructed and truly enjoyable.  They’re the definition of cinematic candy floss, poorly made candy floss but it tastes deliciously sweet.  There’s a love of cinema that exists in the making of the film that is missing from Thor, Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk and it is most likely to be missing from The Avengers.  With the exception of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight the Superhero film has been devoid of the passion and personality that’s present in abundance in the graphic novels and it’s this passion and personality that seeps out of every inch of celluloid in Supersonic Man.  It’s a film that makes a mockery of the rating system as it should definitely score a lot less but it’s got a character that’s larger than life and is effortlessly cool in a geeky kind of way.

The Movie Bar is returning for a one off Summer slam of Superhero films on Sunday 5th August 2012.  More information to follow.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

The Town That Dreaded Sundown

Certificate: 18
Running time: 86 mins
Director: Charles B. Pierce
Starring: Ben Johnson, Andrew Prine, Dawn Wells, Charles B. Pierce
Genre: Drama, Crime, Thriller
Country: USA

The penultimate week of term sees the sleepy border town of Texarkana terrorised by a hooded killer as the U.S attempts to return to a degree of reality after the Second World War.

Charles B. Pierce is probably better known for his work as a Set Decorator having worked on Coffy, The Outlaw Josey Wales and Scream Blacula Scream but the dozen films which he helmed between 1972 and 1998, including the underappreciated The Evictors and the overly problematic Hawken’s Breed showcase many sides of a beautifully flawed director.  His 1976 thriller come docu re-enactment The Town That Dreaded Sundown boasts “the how and the where to be true, only the names have been changed” and it’s with that statement that we begin.

The similarities between the time periods (of the events occurring and of the films creation) are incredibly interesting.  In 1949 we have a Nation coming out of the biggest war it and the World has ever seen.  A country that has witnessed, if not on their mainland, at least on their psyche an attack with Pear Harbor and a generation of physically and psychologically damaged individuals who leave the military only to have their issues locked up in the conservative values of the time.  Jump forward thirty years and we see a new America, an America of changing values and liberal attitudes, a change reflected in it’s cinema but again coming out of a war, one that has left even more people physically maimed and psychologically scarred.  The ‘cinema of trauma’ that was the contemporary Hollywood movement is therefore an ideal backdrop for a tale that seems unbecoming of it’s time and what makes it scarier is that it’s true.

The films use of narration is one that will affect the audience depending on their leanings with regards to narration.  A lot of the time I find the use of a narrator to be contrived and manipulative as it’s unnecessary for you to convey complicated emotion through the screenplay or the performances, after all there’s no need for this when a narrator will do just as well.  This is not the case, in my opinion, with The Town That Dreaded Sundown, the use of narrator works well for this film on two levels.  The first is a period level as a lot of cinema, especially Noir cinema, in the 40’s were reliant on these techniques so it seems only apt that this device to used to set the period.  The second is that it somehow manages to add a level of theatricality and at the same time a factual, documentary feel to the film.  It feels like Dragnet, it feels like Kolchak The Nightstalker yet it’s infinitely more atmospheric than both because of the factual approach of the narration.

Pierce’s framing of the Phantom Killer is skilful, at no time do you want him to portray the killer as some sort of supernatural being yet the way he manoeuvres through shadow and plays within the margins of the darkened cinematic frame put him on par with a Count Orloff with regards to menace but make no mistake he is every bit real.  Likewise Pierce frames a chase scene like he’s a born and bred photographer from Hazard County and the level of energy he instils in these sequences is remarkable.  His cinematography comes apart indoors were a lot of the scenes are motionless and lack any urgency of real enthusiasm.

Ben Johnson gives a fierce performance of the “Lone Wolf Texas Ranger” Captain J.D. Morales, the man who is charged with bringing in the killer.  Like Buford Pusser he’s the kind of lawman you only seem to get in the South, he won’t bend let alone break and though he has a greater understanding of the law than the Pusser depicted in Walking Tall he’s ever inch the bloodhound and is mesmerising throughout.  Andrew Prine puts in an adequate performance as Deputy Norman Ramsey who’s assigned to Morales; he’s the faithful extension of the lawman and does his best with what he’s given.  Pierce saves the best role for himself, one of Patrolman A.C. Benson (aka Sparkplug).  Granted Sparkplug is, no doubt, a completely fictional character designed to give the film some comic relief that I’m not entirely convinced it needs but Pierce does it better than anyone I’ve seen and the Driving and Decoy scenes should be enough to convince you of the same.

Like the narration, the soundtrack will have its division amongst a modern audience.  At time’s it feels a little Mystery Science Theatre 3000 but for the most part it’s extremely effective and claustrophobic as in it’s defined genre scoring there’s a level of psychological baggage that the audience brings with them to fill in the gaps and make the entire experience just that little more terrifying.

Part of what makes The Town That Dreaded Sundown timeless is that lack of closure.  The fact that the killer was never brought to justice allows the story and the film to live on in the psyche of the audience in the same way that Jack the Ripper or the Zodiac killer will always fascinate people.  Another reason is that it’s a film made up of timeless cinematic techniques and done so brilliantly.

If you have the time to kill then why not watch Charles B. Pierce's atmospheric Serial Killer thriller The Town That Dreaded Sundown.

Monday, 19 March 2012


Certificate: 18
Running time: 105 mins
Director: Robert Rodriguez & Ethan Maniquis
Starring: Danny Trejo, Robert De Niro, Steven Seagal, Jessica Alba
Genre: Action, Thriller, Exploitation
Country: USA

As a fan of Robert Rodriguez I came to the 2010 Mexiploitation revenge thriller Machete will all the enthusiasm and joy of a child on Christmas day.  The blade obsessed tattooed killer is not just the role Trejo was born to play but it’s also, due to the interconnectivity of the world of Rodriguez, a prequel to his 2001 family espionage film Spy Kids.

After powerlessly watching his family murdered by Mexican drug lord Torres (Seagal) Machete is forced out of Mexico and across the border to Texas where United States Senator (De Niro) is waging war on immigration using the power of rhetoric and automatic weapons were necessary.  When approached and offered $150,000 to assassinate the Senator a desperate Machete accepts only to find himself the patsy in a world of power, double cross and hidden agendas.

The trailer for Machete, along with that for Hobo with a Shotgun¸ was one of the high points of the Rodriguez/Tarantino 2007 experiment in nostalgia Grindhouse.  Some three years later and no doubt endless calls in the small hours from Trejo, Rodriguez brings the one man Mexican army to the big screen.  What you’ll immediately notice is that the final realisation of the film is a lot of star studded than the trailer, even though Rodriguez shot some 50 minutes of footage to cut together his trailer the casting of De Niro, Alba, Seagal and Michelle Rodriguez has forced the film back to the beginning.  No doubt having a heavy hitter like De Niro, paparazzi’s favourite Lindsay Lohan and Alba on board opened a lot of doors for the film but in casting such recognisable names it actually detracts from the film in some ways.  These performers, especially De Niro and Lohan, come with a lot of baggage and rather than help give the film that genuine Exploitation feel it actually coats the film in a hint of irony.  They all know what’s going on, they all know what they’re doing and unlike Hobo with a Shotgun they are all playing to the genre.  Having said that De Niro is extremely strong in this, after terrible filmic offerings like all of the Focker films, Righteous Kill not to mention New Years Eve it’s nice to see a hint of the man that inspired a generation of actors rather than a tired old man kicking around until his pension comes through.  Alba puts in a strong, hard kicking performance.  It appears that she does her best work with Rodriguez at the helm and will no doubt be praying that Sin City parts two and three finally get the go ahead to save her from more romantic comedies with Dane Cook.  Let’s not go any further without mentioning the awesomeness that is Cheech Marin, not only does he have some of the best one liners in the film but he cuts the sort of iconic image (wielding twin shotguns) that will sit comfortably alongside Ms. 45 in years to come.  The man is a trooper and has always done whatever Rodriguez has asked of him regardless of the size or importance of the role.

Danny Trejo has been playing this role for over ten years, in one way, one genre, or another so it’s no surprise that he’s remarkable.  His physical presence is one that deserves more leading roles but unfortunately his appearance means that chances in Hollywood are small and clearly defined so it’s with this understanding that Machete is embraced with even more enthusiasm that it probably warrants.  Aside from Trejo, Jeff Fahey is an absolute revelation and probably the greatest thing Exploitation cinema has seen in thirty years.  Michelle Rodriguez is underused and Lohan demonstrates a sense of humour in a role that can only be described as a train wreck of a human being.

Narratively Rodriguez has always peppered his films with some dark humour, whether it’s Sex Machine’s crotch gun (From Dusk Til Dawn), Abby’s testicle collection (Planet Terror) or the Dude’s roller skills (Roadracers) there’s always moment of hilarity to be found.  Machete is no exception in the first two thirds of the film as it not only demonstrates an understanding and love for Exploitation cinema but also RR’s own personal sense of humour.  The trouble with Machete comes in the final third when the film lapses into genre clichés and lacks any personality or style.  It also rushes head first towards the finishing line, almost as if they had forgotten to write an ending and need to improvise as the projector enters it's last reel.  Another issue is when Rodriguez has taken a back seat to allow his long term visual effects editor Maniquis cut his teeth that the film looses the identity that Rodriguez and Trejo have been laying for years.  The final showdown feels forced, uninspired and lacking in any impetus which sadly lets the film down.

What makes Exploitation great is the ethos of striving for greatness, even if budget and talent is against them.  The problem with Machete is that too much of it is tongue in cheek and those involved have too much of an awareness of their efforts.  We’ve been promised a return with Machete Kills and a third with Machete Kills Again and if they’re able to capture what makes the first two acts of the film great and follow through to the end and avoid the star casting then the Machete franchise could run for years to come.

Friday, 16 March 2012


Certificate: Unrated
Running time: 83 mins
Director: Sevé Schelenz
Starring: Rob Scattergood, Amber Lewis, Richard Olak
Genre: Horror, Thriller
Country: USA

We all have our favourite horror antagonist, someone who scares the living daylights out of us but what scares them?  A lot of people would speculate what scares them is the Horror sub genre of the “found footage” film.  1999’s The Blair Witch Project saw directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez perform an Orson Welles and deliver their greatest piece of cinematic craftsmanship straight out of the starting blocks.  Such was the critical and financial reward of the film that it received the wholly unnecessary sequel but also gave rise to a flood of found footage films good, bad and indifferent like The Last Broadcast, Cloverfield and most recently Chronicle.

Sevé Schelenz’s supernatural road trip found footage film Skew comes with no less than 40 major festival screenings and awards setting it’s stall out somewhere between The Blair Witch Project and The Sixth Sense.  Three friends take to the road to see all the sites that the U.S of A have to offer, documenting the trip all the way through the lens of Rich’s (Richard Olak) camera.  The trip takes on a sinister feel when they discover that people they have been encountering on the way across country have mysteriously died or have been murdered leading them to wonder what’s doing this and when will it come for them?

One of the biggest challenges with the found footage film is that of the conveyance of the message.  The conventional films format has many devices deeply embedded into his tradition that helps the director clarify ambiguity.  The flashback, the narrator, the promiscuous camera are all tried and tested techniques that are prominent in classical narrative cinema and are all off limits for the found footage director.  Once set out as a found footage film there are rather strict expectations and restrictions, which I will touch on shortly, with the onus on the director arguably more than ever.  Schelenz’s vision of the story, which he also wrote, is for the most part as clear as can be.  He’s obviously storyboarded and walked through the shots that will comprise each scene, each chapter, and each arc until the film is complete and has given direction in a way that encourages a naturalistic representation on screen that immediately puts the audience at ease with the actors who have become characters who become “real” once again with the on-looking audience.  What’s as important, with the found footage film, as what’s on screen is what’s not.  There needs to be moments were time elapses were the characters are ahead of the audience in regards to knowledge.  This creates the mystery, it allows for the audience to project their fears and worries on to the gaps in the narrative.  Crucially there are very few moments when the audiences knowledge can be accepted as greater than that of the protagonists on screen (other than the fact that the footage has been found so we have an idea of their fate) as we are watching in real time what played out for them in real time (this too will be covered shortly). 

The marriage between road movie and horror is one that works well, both genres contain central characters that seemingly don’t fit completely into society thus sending them out on to the plains or killing spree depending on the genre.  They also have clearly defined expectations that can, at times, work against each others sympathies.  On this occasion they don’t as the use of visual effects is wonderfully stylish and sparing; the murky rippling manifestations in camera are genuinely unsettling and sit so naturally in the film that it doesn’t clash with the natural aesthetic of the film.  It’s a skilful mesh of two contradictory styles as you’re likely to see, think Hideo Nakata's Ring.

The three central characters are all first class, there’s a danger in the found footage film for a level of theatricality to set into the performances around the same time that you start to wonder “why are you still filming this just stop it and run” or whatever the survival narrative calls for but this rarely happens in Skew.  This is partly due to the fact that Schelenz has worked it into the narrative that the camera is faulty and therefore you can’t always tell when it’s recording, which is as interesting as it is eerie but is also thanks to the actors’ delivery of the dialogue and their naturalistic interactions with one another.  Rob Scattergood (as Simon) is perfectly cast; he carries a lot of the narrative and drives the film in the Alpha position that’s required when it’s a film about “what happened”.  His relationship with Lewis (Eva) demonstrates a measured and assured performance while his interactions with Rich point to a recently strained friendship and is a strong offering.  Amber Lewis carries the emotional core of the film and does so extremely well; her conflict is never overly exposed through the dialogue but is evident in her gestures and moments of stillness that is very satisfying to watch.  Richard Olak spends most of the time behind the camera and is very much the voice and the direction of the film.  He has the thankless task of driving the narrative, most of the exposition and unless done right will go largely unnoticed.  It’s a real triumph that throughout the course of the film there’s no moments that make you wonder why…why not just stop.

For all the good things about Skew and there are many there are some issues that are critical to the film and throughout the course of the review have been sign posted for discussion.  The biggest problem is the films betrayal of it’s own conventions within the genre.  The found footage have one of two directions they can take.  It’s either a straight up found footage that “look what we just found by the side of the road, let’s watch” ala The Blair Witch Project in which it’s presented as found and therefore unedited or it’s a pseudo documentary that’s been built around the bones of found footage like The Last BroadcastSkew sets its stall out as the former only to break the codes and conventions of the unedited found footage film whenever it needs to convey a message or cover some exposition.  Without giving too much away there are a handful of occurrences were the tape is stopped and rewound for a second look.  In the unedited found footage film this would be moments of lost time which we discover, if at all, through conversation but in Skew we see them.  Now they are affective and help the narrative greatly but they are the equivalent of the General Custer’s biopic featuring the Cavalry phoning for help on their iPhones.  These moments need to be conveyed in non visual ways in the unedited found footage film, similarly there’s a moment when the footage cuts from Rich’s camera to a surveillance camera in a Police station.  Again this does help further the narrative but is a breach of the conventions of this particular type of found footage film and separates the audience from the film as it jars with our understanding of the films reality.  It's particularly annoying as there are other ways in which these moments can be relayed to the audience.  Both these occurrences would be find in the ‘presentational’ world of the documentary found footage film but this is not that and unfortunately it hinders the film more than it could ever assist the narrative.

Skew is an accomplished and atmospheric piece of film making, it’s a indicator that Sevé Schelenz has a future in features and what’s important now is to build on the successes that Skew has to offer.  What it does well in the film it does incredibly well but the use of in-camera flashbacks (rewinding) and promiscuous cinematography (the Police surveillance footage) hints at ambiguity in the narrative that could be clarified without betraying the genre which it firmly sets out to be but for some reason has gone the other way.  It's a shame as it stops the film from being better than it could be.

Skew is available on Netflix in the United States and on DVD in Germany from May 2012.  It will also premiere on the Horror Channel in the UK in the middle of 2012 and in Russia in late 2012.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil

Certificate: 15
Running time: 89 mins
Director: Eli Craig
Starring: Tyler Labine, Alan Tudyk, Katrina Bowden
Genre: Comedy, Horror, Hixploitation
Country: USA

2010 saw the release of Eli Craig’s Hixploitation inspired horror comedy that would play heavily on our understanding of the hillbilly and serve up a new way of thinking wrapped up in the outer workings of the ‘circumstantial comedy’.  Tucker (Tudyk) and Dale (Labine) have set off to enjoy Tucker’s new vacation home in the mountains.  En route they encounter a group of judgemental college kids.  While fishing the two hillbillies rescue Allison (Bowden) from her night time dip turned drowning only to have their actions misconstrued as a kidnapping and for the kids attitudes towards ‘the redneck’ to skew their perception of events leading to a lot of death and mayhem.

The circumstantial comedy is a sub genre of comedy that requires the most precision as it runs the risk of either looking forced and obvious or too vague to pick up on.  Over the course of cinema there have been some fine examples of circumstantial comedy (and some terrible ones too) with a personal favourite being the Peter Sellers classic Being There.  The best examples of circumstantial comedy has the perfect marriage between script and performance, it’s the case in Being There and it’s evident in Tucker and Dale as the script (co-written by director Craig) has several well set up pieces that are allowed to develop organically, the message on the tree for example, and are skilfully padded out by subtle references and inspired scenarios from both the horror genre but also from the Hixploitation sub genre.  These work on the audience the same way they work on the supporting cast of college kids, though we can see the bigger picture.  As for performances Katrina Bowden is likeable as Allison, though the character is under developed, Jesse Moss (Chad) is the All American you can’t help but hate and as the Alpha Male of the misguided group this is actively encouraged.  The evolution of his character is quick and at time rather than being seen as misguided he just comes across as frustratingly punchable...or sooo punchable.  Tyler Labine delivers a soft and gentle performance that’s wonderfully against character expectations.  Having only really seem him in Reaper prior to Tucker and Dale it was good to see a slightly different side to his range, here's hoping there's a lot more to come.  As a long time fan of Joss Whedon I’m happy to be able to say that the reason the film works is because of Alan Tudyk (Firefly, Dollhouse) as Tucker.  He’s always been an underused and underappreciated actor and what’s delivered in Tucker and Dale Vs Evil is little short of a masterclass in gesturality.  Tudyk’s depiction of Tucker is one of an earnest hard working individual yet there are moments or mimickry that echo the genre origins of the hillbilly.  The scene in the cabin after the bee attack has Tudyk gingerly carrying his battered and pained face, his eyes closed, mouth cautious from the stings and it’s believable yet at the same time it mirrors the dim-witted sociopathic redneck of Exploitation and Horror cinema.  Similarly the moment when he breaks through the door waving (out of control) a chainsaw everything about his physicality screams The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, his gate, his stride, even his balance.  

It’s remarkable how he does it yet it never feels like a simple imitation, the truth of the character and the scene shines through.  It would be a completely different film without him and certainly would be worse off.

One or two of the circumstantial deaths feel a little similar but thankfully that’s it as Craig works hard to keep the film fresh and inventive.  The reveal feels a little forced, which is a shame as the rest of the film seems natural and the film could have done with a little bit more exposition earlier to set it up but that’s a minor issue.  There’s also a few small logic and narrative holes to the film but these are part and parcel of the genre.

On the surface Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil has a simple premise, a straight forward narrative and is relatively unchallenging but like the best Exploitation films it is dealing with, at the heart of the film,  universal issues like tolerance, class, values and prejudice.  The goals of the film are well thought out and achievable.  It’s a rare film that succeeds as a Comedy, a Horror and an Exploitation film but Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil is that film.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

Certificate: PG
Running time: 79 mins
Director: Seth Gordon
Starring: Steve Wiebe, Billy Mitchell, Walter Day, Mark Alpiger
Genre: Documentary
Country: USA

In the early 1980’s Billy Mitchell set the World Record hit score on Donkey Kong, over two decades later slightly OCD teacher Steve Wiebe has stepped up to claim the throne for himself.  Wiebe battles, not only against Donkey Kong or Mitchell but against the Video Game establishment which has long held Mitchell up as their King but when the quarters are down who’ll rise to the challenge?

Seth Gordon’s The King of Kong is more than just a documentary it’s a comedy that’s vastly superior to his fictional offerings like Horrible Bosses and Four Christmases.  The film has it’s own share of talking heads but so much of the films comedy is born out of moments that simply involves Gordon following the protagonists around and allowing them to be themselves.  Mitchell for example with his beard-mullet combo along with old glory tie has clearly fashioned himself on being the Chuck Norris of Nerds when it actually he bares more of an example to Ben Stiller’s over the top comedy personas, make no mistake Billy people are laughing at you.  Whether it’s his zen master inspired philosophies that’s clearly little more than a blow hard enjoying the sound of his own voice or the petty little girl ‘I’m not going over there don’t look, don’t look’ stand off with Wiebe he’s absolutely hysterical for all the wrong reasons.  The credit has to go to Gordon for having the confidence in the subject matter and the subjects to allow the camera to roll and roll, it pays off on more than one occasion.  Wiebe, by contrasy, is softly spoken unassuming and unbelievably likeable.  His run of back luck is enough to endear him to you let alone the unfair, uneven playing field dealt to him by Billy Mitchell and his acolytes.

The rivalry between Mitchell and Wiebe is epic, it’s Rocky Balbao Vs. Apollo Creed with a pocket full of loose change and thumb calasysts.  Mitchell, the seasoned pro who’s rested on a reputation longer than he can remember, Wiebe the hungry, raw and talented newcomer.  The film documents Mitchell’s mind games, dubious taped world records and petty avoidance tactics not to mention the nepotistic worship from his gaming family and all the while without passing judgement on these grown men and their childish behaviour never mind the fact that he refuses (without actually stating it) to play Wiebe in a live head to head.  He leaves it to the audience to draw their own conclusions and whether you’re down with the establishment or fan of the underdog will determine which side you come down on.

What makes King of Kong rewatchable, in the way that some documentaries are not is that it has all the peaks and dips and twists of the most dramatic narrative based film, it’s somewhere between a comedy and a sports film and will probably draw a lot of comparisons to Dodgeball and it probably should.  As a child of the 80’s I remember all the game these men pride themselves on being the best of the best at, not to mention the fledging days of gaming which endears the film to me even more.  King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters is a documentary about the small things in life that we make important because of the underlying issues, for KOK it’s injustice and segregation which are highly emotive and important issues.  The fact that they’re delivered in the physical manifestation of  a moustached Italian/American plumber from Brooklyn is a testament to those involved.  A thoroughly entertaining film and for the record…fuck you Billy Mitchell!  Go Team Wiebe.

Monday, 12 March 2012

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai across the 8th Dimension

Certificate: 12
Running time: 103 mins
Director: W.D. Richter
Starring: Peter Weller, John Lithgow, Ellen Barkin, Jeff Goldblum
Genre: Sci-Fi, Action
Country: USA

If you’ve ever watched The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai across the 8th Dimension you might be wondering where this review will start as it’s a valid question…where do you start with Buckaroo Banzai?  The comforting truth is that it doesn’t really matter where you start you always end up with the same WTF conclusion.  Buckaroo Banzai (Weller) is of an American mother and a Japanese father (both scientists) and when he’s not in surgery (I forgot to mention he’s a surgeon) or playing with his band The Hong Kong Cavaliers (he’s also in a band I forgot to mention that too) he’s either driving his jet car (that's not a typo) or fighting off alien invaders (I forgot to mention he’s also a martial arts expert).  Banzai and his team have been working on a device that will allow them to travel through solid matter and it’s an early trial and breakthrough with this device that leads a band of trapped fascist aliens to them thus putting the future of the planet in jeopardy.

It’s at this point that readers will probably be split into two camps, the first camp with be solid 'WTF is going on?!' enthusiasts and the second will have the thousand yard stare as they experienced a Buckaroo Banzai flashback to the 1980’s and a part of their brain which closed itself off after primary school science class.

Safe to say that it’s no spoiler alert to point out at this point that the film is beyond absurd, it goes as far as to make Doug McClure’s At the Earth’s Core look like a level headed scientific exploration of the green planet.  The soundtrack and costuming is almost too 80’s to function, the synthesiser is working overtime, the suit jacket sleeves are up passed the elbows and everyone comes with their own mullet.  Peter Weller (Robo Cop, 24) has many things going for him but being half Japanese or at least looking remotely passable as half Japanese is not one of them.  He’s as American as apple pie and as western as Robert Mitchum.  He does, however and thankfully, play the role with all it’s absurdities perfectly straight and you can very much see that he’s enjoying playing the James Bond / Doogie Howser / MTV generation mashup for all it’s worth.  He somehow sells you on some of the more ridiculous aspects of the script and some of the more hilarious dialogue is mastered when he's on the clock.  Other than Robert Ito, who’s amazing and always worth watching regardless of what he’s in, Lewis Smith is suitably perfect as Perfect Tommy while Jeff Goldblum (as New Jersey) in full cowboy attire is worth watching for how increasingly awkward he is in bright red shirt and Stetson.  Aside from Weller the best value performances comes from Clancy Brown (as Rawhide).  He’s assured, contained avoids the knowing gestures off camera that Ellen Barkin is criminal of.  He actually makes you care about his character which is saying something in the 8th Dimension.  It kills me to point out how terrible John Lithgow is in the film, double helpings of ham are fine you’re allowed to enjoy your work but his accent is refined and bottled essence of awfulness.  So bad that you begin to get caught up in the OTTness of it all and begin to laugh at him.  I love Lithgow…this saddens me.  Adding insult to injury Dan Hedaya and Christopher Lloyd are character footnotes and underused.

All the problems with the film actually manage to lead to a degree of salvation.  The naming of all the aliens with John [Insert stupid name here] like John Bigbootee or John Small Berries gets more than one childish laugh as the absurd hysteria takes over, similarly the fact that the no entry sign has seemingly been penned by a Lolcat highlights just how serious those involved wanted the film to be, or should it be films as they had intended in making Buckaroo Banzai a franchise.  People love this film, the amount of good will out there for The Honk Kong Cavaliers is amazing but you can’t help but think it’s born out of how much fun people had laughing at the film rather than with it which might have been the intent as Dave Kehr's review at the time said that "the film gave you the mildly annoying sensation of being left out of a not very good private joke".  The truth of the matter is, and I’m sorry to be the one who has to break it, but it’s not very good…at all.  This is not to say that it’s not entertaining in it’s own way, it is.  You will easily pass the 103 minutes but it won’t have done anything for you.  Some of my favourite films are absurd, my love of John Waters and my secret love for both Weekend at Bernies films will illuminate that but the problem with Buckaroo Banzai is that there was too much of the surreal going on, enough even for a few films and without something to actually ground the film and the narrative it all just felt like it was a story spilling out of the mind of a hyperactive child with ADD.  Desperate Living is the perfect example of how to ground the fantastic against the realm of the mundane and down beat.  The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai across the 8th Dimension doesn't have any of the realism required to focus the audience which is a shame as the one time it attempted this was not only impressive but also rather intelligent.  The use of the 1939 Orson Welles radio broadcast is clever, tangible but unfortunately not enough.

Buckaroo Banzai is an incredibly visual film and to it's credit is one that could be enjoyed without an sound, in a VJ environment and it should be given credit for being an incredible visual experience in a time of cinema were, technologically, it was on the verge of a major renovation.  Sadly the whole is a lot less than the sum of it's parts.

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