Thursday, 5 May 2016
Chuck Norris vs Communism (2015)
A breezy, pleasant documentary that poses an interesting question - what if you lived in a world where watching a Chuck Norris film was an act of political defiance?
Through a mix of talking head interviews and dramatic reconstructions, we are taken back to 1980s Romania, under the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceaușescu. Western Imperialist Capitalist culture was banned outright, but the government and Secret Service were no match for one enterprising citizen, and a woman who went on to have one of the most famous voices in the country.
The citizen was Teodor Zamfir, a man who had overseen the smuggling of scores of videos of banned American films into Romania and set up a dubbing studio in his apartment. The woman is Irinia Nistor, who was working as a translator for Romania’s Government controlled TV channel. Clandestinley approached by a colleague, she ended up providing Romanian language voiceovers for the bootlegged films, and as the underground network of viewers spread, Nistor became the second most well known voice in the country, after that of Ceausescu himself.
The title of the film, while understandably attention grabbing, is not strictly accurate. Norris was one part of a wider set of American films that was not limited to the action genre, but took in comedies and romances such as Dirty Dancing. These would all be viewed in clandestine screenings at somebody's apartment, and if word got around that one was taking place these could be busy affairs.
This is ultimately what Chuck Norris vs Communism celebrates, the communal joy of a shared experience, of being lifted out of reality, even if only for a few hours.
By 1989 Ceaușescu's regime had collapsed following a wave of violent protests, and he and his wife were tried and executed. With the collapsing economy and living standards he presided over, it is likely Ceaușescu would have fallen eventually anyway, and I don't think the director Ilinca Calugareanu is trying to imply the videos were responsible for his overthrow. But, there is no denying, they did help people get through the troubled times.
Chuck Norris vs Communism Official Trailer by filmow
Wednesday, 20 April 2016
Island of Terror (1966)
Island of Terror is a fast paced, imaginative and at times, wonderfully cheesy slice of British sci-fi horror, straddling the twin sub genres of "science run amok" and "trapped on a remote British island". Despite the presence of director Terence Fisher and star Peter Cushing, it is not a Hammer film, and feels if anything like a precursor 1970s era Dr Who.
On a remote island the police constable makes a grisly find - the corpse of a local farmer, but without a single bone in his body. The local doctor is stumped, so travels to the mainland to seek help from top London pathologist Dr. Brian Stanley (Peter Cushing) and bone disease expert Dr. David West. Back on the island they find more boneless bodies - and a mysterious lab where a scientist was working on a cure for cancer. Has this got some link to the strange creatures responsible for the horrifying deaths? But with all transport and communication to the island cut off, will any of them make it off alive?
Island of Terror was very obviously knocked out cheaply and quickly, but the film-makers respond to it with typical British Gusto. Firstly, by cheerfully ignoring the ridiculous rubber monsters causing the terror, and secondly by focussing more on the script. Being trapped in a place is a classic horror trope, and the script does set up, albeit through portentous dialogue, plenty of reasons why they can not get away. The writers are also not afraid to throw in twists and shocks, and bump off important and likeable characters. Granted some of the attitudes have not dated well. Toni Merrill, Dr West's girlfriend exists purely, as the daughter of a wealthy man with a helicopter, to give the men quick transport back to the island. After that she spends most of her time screaming and needing to be rescued. The slightly patronising attitudes of the London lot to the island folk looks a little cringeworthy too, especially when it was big city slicker scientists that started the whole crisis in the first place.
Some of the special effects, such as the boneless corpses or an dismembering a hand are surprisingly gruesome and shocking for a 1960s film. Others, particularly the creatures themselves, are just awful. They look like rubber shells stuffed with noodles, and coupled with the weird squeaky electronic noises they make, could come straight out of 1970s Dr Who. Cushing, as usual, plays it admirably straight, and brings some dignity to these scenes.
In fact, with some minor tweaks, the whole thing could play as a 70s Dr Who story, with Jon Pertwee in the Cushing role, and similar ideas of science gone bad and threatening the world were explored in stories of that era, such as The Green Death and The Seeds of Doom. Plus, there is a perpetually screaming woman who always needs to be rescued.
The film finishes on a speech defending the scientist whose work caused all the problems, a sort of, "okay, it went bad, but at least he meant well". This is quickly followed by a twist ending along the lines of "at least it's not happening anywhere else", followed by a cut to a lab in Japan, where.... well, I'm sure you can guess.
Sunday, 17 April 2016
The Raid is one of the most compellingly relentless action films of recent times.
Rama (martial arts star Iko Uwais) is a rookie officer in an elite Indonesian police paramilitary unit. His team's first mission is to infiltrate the high-rise slum fortress of ruthless gang boss Tama, previously considered untouchable by the police. However, things very quickly go wrong The problem? The apartment complex the cops are invading is occupied by tenants who range from assassins to thugs to certifiable psychopaths – and all the other scum the slums have to offer. The cops barely make it through the door before they’re spotted by the crooks, and from there it is an all-out war, floor by floor, as Rama and his teammates try to brave a nightmare of violence and destruction in order to make their arrest.
Writer and director Gareth Evans takes a simple concept and wisely avoids overcomplicating it, keeping the story moving forward at all times and also steers clear of modern cliches such as smirking one-liners, and “bromance”. The characters are far from invulnerable, giving a real sense of uncertainty to the outcome at times.
The action is shot and edited for maximum impact, with hardly a wasted shot or scene, leaving the viewer breathless. Granted, this does not leave much time to introduce the characters, many of whom, good and bad, get bumped off before we've barely had time to learn their names. This does have two justifiable outcomes however, as the scale of the carnage sets the tone of the threat, and the diminished cast keeps the story focussed.
While The Raid is ostensibly an action film, the gore, confined spaces and overwhelming tension at times make it feel like a horror film. There is also one other disconcerting element that links it to that genre - the building itself. The exterior has a slightly unreal feel, the overwhelming height giving the feel of a fairy tale castle. The interiors are nightmarish, dark, dingy, more like an insane asylum than a residential tower block.
Thursday, 7 April 2016
1950s sci-fi films often feature campy special effects and hostile outsiders from another planet trying to invade this one but Forbidden Planet stands out from the crowd in that it features neither of these things. MGM poured a lot of money into the excellent model work and borrowed a Disney man to work on the animated laser blasts and the famed "Monsters from the ID" and the threat comes not from "out there" but from deep within the mind of man.
In the 23rd Century, a star ship led by Commander John Adams (Leslie Nielsen) is sent to the distant planet of Altair 4 in order to find out what happened to an expedition who landed there 20 years earlier. On arrival the crew are met by the only survivors, Dr Morbius and his daughter Altaira, and their robot servant, Robby. Morbius tells them that his shipmates and their craft were destroyed by a planetary force when they tried to leave. The same force starts to attack Adams and his crew and ship but is it a force which may have a source closer to home than someone would like to admit?
The script for Forbidden Planet is both one of the best and weakest things about the film. The themes explored are serious and intelligent, aimed at adults, not the teenage drive-in crowd of The Blob, and are engaging and thought provoking. But it is also relentlessly talky at times, giving the film an often sluggish paced, something not helped by the slightly flat and stilted performances of the leads.
However, these occasional lapses are more than made up for by the sumptuous visuals, whether it is the spacecraft model work, the huge, imposing and beautifully realised Krell underground cities (structures that completely dwarf their human interlopers), or the eerie and disturbing animated silhouettes of the Id monster, courtesy of Disney’s Joshua Meador, who was loaned to MGM for the film.
The story is not entirely original of course. Forbidden Planet often gets branded as a space opera version of The Tempest, and while that is not strictly true, it does share some similarities with Shakespeare's play. The Tempest centres on Prospero, a magician exiled to an island with his daughter Miranda by his brother Antonio who then steals his title and property. Prospero uses his powers to cause a storm that shipwrecks Antonio, trapping him on the island where he can take his revenge. Morbius is the Prospero character with Altaira as Miranda, and Altair 4 stands in for Prospero's island. After that the comparisons don't really work as Adams and the crew are strangers to Morbius, and he is not driven by revenge, rather a desire to be left alone to carry exploring the planet and the Krell, the now extinct civilisation that lived there previously.
Forbidden Planet works much better if you judge it as a piece of work in its own right, and as a time capsule of the ideas, attitudes and obsessions of the time in which it was made. The first of these obsessions is Freudian psychoanalysis, which by the 1950s had come out of the consulting room and into popular culture, in particular the movies, through the work of directors such as Hitchcock. It is made explicit in Forbidden Planet through talk of "Monsters from the Id". The Id is what Freud thought of as the primitive, instinctive, often illogical aspect of our personality that demands immediate satisfaction, regardless of the consequences. Morbius thinks both he and the Krell have outgrown this, but it soon becomes apparent, particularly when handsome space pilots take a shine to his daughter, that he has not, and the raging torrent in his psyche takes a more literal and deadly form when linked to the highly advanced Krell technology.
Forbidden Planet is also very much of it's time in its look and attitudes. The Flying Saucer that the crew arrive in is another 1950s icon, albeit one here used by mankind rather than little green men. The film has some of the 50s can-do optimism of a country riding high from the post-war euphoria, with a new generation of pioneers, rolling up their sleeves and carving out new worlds. The craft is run like the ships and subs that some of the audience may have served on during the war 10 years earlier, even down to the cook with a taste for bourbon.
Robby the Robot is also a very old fashioned idea of a robot, basically a butler with a deadpan tone of voice. Although a wildly impractical design, he would go to become an iconic figure in further films and TV shows, and here, more importantly, plays an important role, driving the plot forward with his manufacturing capabilities and programmed attitudes towards human life. The deadpan tone also provides some comic relief to the sometimes very serious onscreen talking.
The astonishing, unsettling soundtrack is the work of electronic music pioneers Bebe and Louis Barron. It breaks all the rules of what a soundtrack should be in two big ways. Firstly it is entirely atonal, being composed and performed on oscillators made by the Barrons, and fed through echoes and tape loops. Secondly, by having their work represent everything from the ambient noise of the Krell buildings, the roar of the monsters and the ship’s engines, but also having it underpin key scenes to add to the tension, they blur the lines between diegetic and non-diegetic audio.
Forbidden Planet had a further influence beyond this, leaving an undeniable mark on the whole sci-fi genre. It paved the way for serious, adult sci-fi such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, as well as providing the template for Star Trek. The film and TV show both feature a ship run like a military craft, exploring new worlds and investigating mysteries, but using a scientific approach to explain things. In addition, the human drama in Trek and Forbidden Planet centres around the three main crew members, the First Officer, the ship’s doctor, and the steely, unflappable captain with an eye for the ladies.
Tuesday, 29 March 2016
Perhaps even more than his ground breaking short work, The Great Dictator is Charlie Chaplin's most important and daring work. At the time when world leaders, never mind Hollywood studio bosses were reluctant to annoy Hitler, Chaplin had the guts not only to put his reputation and money on the line, but to make the end product largely free from pious moralising, instead going for the giant raspberry in the face of the despot.
The plot is a slightly contrived piece of farce. Chaplin plays a barber (unnamed, just like his tramp character), from the fictional country of Tomania. During military service during the First World War, he saves the life of Schultz, a German pilot, crashing a plane and giving himself amnesia for 20 years. He eventually returns to his barber shop, only to find that a dictator, Hynkel, who is also a dead ringer for the barber, has come to power, and his goons are sweeping through the country's ghettos, smashing up businesses and rounding up Jews. The barber ends up in a concentration camp, from which escapes, just in time for Hynkel to suffer a mishap on a boat which ends with him in the camp and leaves the world with a serious case of mistaken identity.
The film largely consists of set pieces, featuring some of Chaplin's best physical comedy, much of it dialogue free as well, such as the graceful dance with the balloon, the hair raising plane ride to freedom, and the running gag involving confusion over the correct salute. Chaplin's reputation as a perfectionist is well deserved judging from the elaborate staging and construction of the scenes.
Special mention also needs to go to Jack Oakie, who plays a thinly disguised version of Mussolini, Benzini Napaloni, the ruler of neighbouring Bacteria. The state visit is an increasingly ridiculous exercise in one upmanship, with a misbehaving train carriage, uneven furniture, and a barber chair gag that predates the Bugs Bunny cartoon Rabbit of Seville.
The film only really comes unstuck at the very end, when the barber, impersonating Hynkel, takes to the microphone to deliver a heartfelt three minute monologue to the assembled crowd, both on screen and those sitting in the cinema. There is very little to find fault with in the content, a plea for kindness and humanity in the face of industrialisation and war, and a reassurance to those suffering under Hynkel/Hitler that freedom will eventually prevail. As a standalone piece it is certainly moving and stirring, however as part of the film, the speech jars with the style and content of that which has preceded it and moves towards the earnest lecturing Chaplin had avoided up to then.
Your perception of the film's success as a satire may depend on how you personally define satire. Other than the climax, rather than hand-wringing or over intellectualising Chaplin is more interested in showing Hynkel to be a stupid buffoon. He spent a lot of time studying and aping Hitler's mannerisms and speech patterns, and clearly wanted the audience to link their scornful laughter at Hynkel with their attitudes to Hitler. However, writing some years later in his autobiography, Chaplin said that could not have made the film if he had known at the time of the true horror of the Holocaust. While understandable, this would have been a great shame and a great loss to the world. Despots are invariably humourless, and fully deserve to have a raspberry blown in their faces. It may not bring them down, but it may make a chink in their armour, and sometimes, as Mark Twain once said, the human race has one really effective weapon, and that is laughter.
Saturday, 26 March 2016
During it’s heyday in the 70s and 80s, Italian exploitation cinema tapped into the success of any number of successful films and genres, such as zombies, maverick cops and Mad Max style post-apocalyptic worlds. Atlantis Interceptors adds a new twist to the latter by splicing it with the well-known but untapped mythology of the lost undersea kingdom of Atlantis.
When radioactive material leaks from a Russian nuclear submarine sunk in the Caribbean, it causes the legendary city of Atlantis to rise from the sea. A group of scientists led by Dr. Cathy Rollins (Gioia Scola) team up with two mercenaries, Mike Ross (Christopher Connolly) and his sidekick Mohammed (Tony King), in a battle for survival after descendants of the original Atlanteans decide to reclaim the world for themselves by destroying everything and everyone already here.
The script is a jaw dropping mix of fairly well constructed action and adventure, and baffling lapses in anything approaching logic. Well constructed in as much as it takes time to introduce Ross and his mercenaries in a way that pays off when needed, and also drops in twists and turns, and ups the stakes and the threat at the right time. Illogical as in where the hell did the Mad Max band of bikers come from, and why are they smashing up Miami, leaving a trail of bloody corpses and burnt out buildings in their wake? Unless I blacked out during a vital scene, no explanation is ever given as to how or why they suddenly appear.
Director Ruggero Deodato is perhaps best known for notorious pseudo snuff video nasty Cannibal Holocaust but this is a million miles away from the grim depressing feel of that. The model work and special effects are about what you would expect for something made cheaply and quickly, the action scenes are competently handled and the production design of a burnt out looted city is well executed.
The human star of the show is definitely Christopher Connolly, who became a regular in the Italian film industry. Here he throws himself into the role with obvious relish and is great fun to watch.
Like any of these sort of films, please don't think about it too much, just enjoy the action, gore, cheesy dialogue and brain hurting plot twists. Oh and the disco theme tune.
Wednesday, 23 March 2016
The phrase "worst film ever" has been bandied around so often that it has lost all meaning, but it also invites debate as to how we define what that phrase actually means. I have a great fondness for films like ROTOR, Gymkata, and The Courier of Death, as well as the work of Ed Wood, but while the makers of these may lack the budget and skills of others, their lack of self-awareness creates a fun, delirious, anything-can-happen approach that is rarely boring, at least not for long. Boring to me is a bad film, and the worst one ever would have to be the most boring.
Demon Cop is not boring, but neither could you call it entirely fun. It is in fact one of the most painful, deranged, useless, and hilarious messes I have ever sat through. The plot is just about impossible to decipher, crammed as is with characters and storylines that come and go at whim. An ageing Cameron Mitchell appears for an opening monologue, playing a chain-smoking psychiatrist who rambles on about Edgar Allen Poe and madness, none of which has anything to do with anything.
The main character is neither a demon or a cop, but a probation officer, who may or may not have been in Vietnam and may or may not have contracted something during a blood transfusion that turns him into a werewolf. Every now then two detectives show up and moan that they are investigating gang shootings when they should be on vacation. In addition, a radio talk show host and an ostensibly German Interpol agent put in appearances for some reason. At this point the relentlessness of the noise, the editing, the overloaded incoherent script, the teeth grindingly awful dialogue becomes too much and the experience becomes a painful blur, something to be endured, that you can brag about to your friends.
Without knowing anything about the film’s production history, I would say that it feels like somebody has got hold of some half-finished footage and gamely tried to stitch something together as quickly and cheaply as possible, to shove out to an unsuspecting audience. The video box promises special effects from “the creators of Terminator 2”, but wisely avoids getting bogged down in too much detail as to who these people might be.
Demon Cop is hard to describe or write about and it’s even harder to recommend. Frankly if the inmates at Guantanamo Bay had been subjected to this rather than waterboarding, they would have sung like canaries. However, if you do get to the end with your brain catching fire, pat yourself on the back, as you will have joined a very elite club.