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Nice insight into the crazily smart Ferrara
Abel Ferrara is the director behind the excellent KING OF NEW YORK (1990) and BAD LIEUTENANT (1992). He's often wound up folks in Hollywood, refusing to fit into the respectable facade that directors are supposed to project. In NOT GUILTY (taken from a French TV documentary series) we see Ferrara in all of a glory, a hulking guy with messed up teeth and a bottle and cigarette always in his hands. He carries something of the charm of Bukowski... a lumbering, likable and talented rogue who pulls other people along with him.
But Ferrara hasn't made a truly notable feature film since the superb THE FUNERAL in 1996, and has often ended up making shitty sleaze, music videos, documentaries and short films. He's been attached to various projects that he's pulled out of - like GAME OF DEATH - and failed to get funding for grand visions like JECKYLL AND HYDE because - as he says - he "refuses to kiss the feet of Hollywood" Ever since he burst onto the scene with his low-grade horror DRILLER KILLER, Ferrara has been considered eccentric and untameable. NOT GUILTY captures this side of Ferrara very well. He talks - often very interestingly - to anyway who takes his fancy. He describes a chase scene to a guy in a music shop (who says - after Ferrara leaves - that the first time he came into the shop he had to throw him out), flirts outrageously with some gals in the street, directs a music video, and gives some wisdom on New York life as he cruises around with his buddies. And all this is in what is essentially a 24 hour snapshot of Ferrara's life.
The snapshot nature of the film is a positive in some ways. In fact, you can almost see Ferrara slowly sober up (then get drunk again) and it captures Ferrara's hectic, fun but often shambolic life. The bullshit he spouts to girls is frequently hilarious and - somehow - he almost seems to be winning them over....
But the character of Ferrara is so wacky that you'd prefer to see more. A proper documentary following him for a longer period of time, ideally taking in how he behaves on a full film set. It's little wonder Harvey Keitel's version of the "Bad Lieutenant" is so loopy with Ferrara at the helm, probably stripped naked and making aeroplane noises to show Keitel exactly what he wants.
NOT GUILTY is a fun watch. It's one that will play much better for fans of Ferrara's (good) movies, but should also appeal to fans of lovable drunks.
Visiting Hours (1982)
Stupidly under-rated serial killer movie
VISITING HOURS is a largely laughed-at serial killer flick starring Michael Ironside. I suppose many of the laughs generate from William Shatner being in the film, playing a concerned boyfriend. I've never understood the fixation with Shatner as a comedy figure. Shatner is OK in his role, playing it completely straight and not completely terribly. It seems in getting fixated on the (in my view, non-existent) laughs from Shatner, viewers seem to have a blind spot to a lot of good things that VISITING HOURS achieves.
Ironside is strong as the killer (Colt Hawker), whose desire to kill comes from a terrible childhood and an abusive father. He identifies with his father, and loathes women because his mother threw boiling water over his Pa's face. Seems a bit of a stretch, but it wouldn't be the first time sometimes chosen the abuser over the person they abuse.
Colt becomes a misogynist, and turns his attention onto Deborah Ballin, who speaks out against violence towards women. She's a little militant about it and annoys a few people, so it's hard for the cops to figure out that Colt is the one hunting her down.
Some of the kill scenes are genuinely affecting. Colt likes to takes pictures of his victims as they're dying, and one - where he pulls a breathing tube from an elderly lady - is harrowing. Don't forget that Ironside was great in STARSHIP TROPPERS and brilliant in TOTAL RECALL as the supremely slimy Richter, and he excels in a similar role here. It's pretty baffling why Ironside ended up in TV series/movie hell given his excellence in playing the bad guy. Just the luck of the draw.
But the main plus of VISITING HOURS is that it's incredibly well shot. It's wildly voyeuristic, with lots of uncomfortable close-ups and point-of-view shots... and lots of lingering on people's suffering. The director - Jean-Claude Lord - has made nothing else of note. Even his name rhymes in a comedic way. Lord started out in France, then ended up doing US TV movies. But VISITING HOURS has a slight Hitchcock vibe and the level of voyeurism that makes you feel a little grubby just watching the damn movie.
I'm not saying VISITING HOURS is a classic. It's not up there with HENRY, and it's not up there with the next rung of excellent serial killer movies... say something like ANGST or HIGHWAYMEN. The pacing is a little laboured, and there are passages of ropey dialogue. But VISITING HOURS is a very good movie. It certainly is stupidly underrated, and is definitely worth checking out for a well-directed slice of slimy horror.
Le trou (1960)
Brilliant prison-break movie... and beautifully filmed
LE TROU is based on the series noir novel by real-life ex-crim Jose Giovanni. Giovanni escaped from prison in 1947 (and was quickly re-captured) and LE TROU is an account of the break-out. It even goes as far as to cast one of Giovanni's fellow escapees in one of the parts - as "Roland" - in the movie.
LE TROU starts with four guys holed up in a jail cell built for just two, when yet another prisoner is shoved in with them. They're surprisingly friendly to the guy and the guards, eagerly accepting such exciting jobs as folding up cardboard boxes. Claude, the new guy, is a little uneasy... and begins to question them about it. They eventually reveal that they are planning an escape. The stacks of unfolded cardboard boxes are designed to cover the hole they intend to dig.
Other than Claude, the film is played by non-actors... which is often seen as a weird badge of honour with films (SOMERS TOWN etc.). Truth is, casting real people in roles often leads to disastrous movies. For every classic you remember (such as the real folks in WISE BLOOD) there's tens of terrible movies. Well, put LE TROU with one of the classics that pulls it off. Roland is particularly fascinating and apparently he was cast because he's really dexterous. He makes up a little mirror on a toothbrush in seconds, and that allows them to spy out of their cell's peephole to see if any guards are approaching.
The movie is full of little moments of clever touches and realism. One scene features their food packages being searched by a silent twerp with a knife on a bit of string. He slices open their care packages, their cheese, their bread, their pate (one guy gets fois gras!) to make sure there isn't anything inside them. In another scene the head guard turns a blind eye as the prisoners dispense a little justice to some prison plumbers who've stolen some of their food.
Even the bashing of the hole is very well handled. It won't be to everyone's taste - there's a lot of bashing and digging for much of the movie - but I loved that all the walls are very hard to break through. As with the guys breaking into somewhere in RIFIFI, the process is painstakingly real. And because it's so deafening and time-consuming (especially at first), you get involved with the fears of the escapees. Will the guards hear? This noise is then contrasted with incredibly quiet scenes as they try to hide from guards, magnifying the impact of each state.
The prisoners are very sympathetic. Monsignor is the funny one, Geo the tough one, Manu the leader, Roland the brains. But each character's depth grows throughout. Only Claude - as the new guy - is a little shifty, but - as he starts to pull his weight - he gradually becomes more likable. Apart from Claude's crime (accidentally shooting his wife in the shoulder), the others never reveal what they've done... you just know they're pulling long stretches. But what's also interesting - and maybe this is why they're likable - is that they never bitch that they're innocent. They accept the situation they're in, and their own fault in it. They don't want forgiveness... they just want to escape.
I watched this off the back of watching Becker's equally strong TOUCHEZ PAS AU GRISBI, and it's worth putting these (slightly lesser known) films up there with some of the other great French 50s classics... RIFIFI, DIABOLIQUES, WAGES OF FEAR etc. These French guys were really chugging out some movies in the 50s that were the match of the great American noirs of the era. Go on, get your reading glasses on and give a chance to subtitled noir classics like LE TROU.
You're Gonna Miss Me (2005)
Touching catch-up with the man who walked with a zombie....
This documentary tells the story of Roky Erickson, formally the lead singer of 60s' psychedelic rock band "13th Floor Elevators" and the 70s' "Roky Erickson and the Aliens". It quickly establishes a modern day, shambling, overweight Roky. He now stays in a three room apartment, listening to many ear-splitting sounds at once - a TV playing cartoons, a radio playing feedback, an electronic organ playing a test tune, and more. Roky settles into this, pulls down his shades and falls asleep. His mother says: "It's only when I turn them off that he wakes up". YOU'RE GONNA MISS ME explores what's going on in Erickson's head that he so desperately needs to silence.
Erickson did a lot of drugs in the 60s'... before and after 13th Floor Elevators' "You're Gonna Miss Me" was a big hit. LSD, straight acid, weed, the usual suspects. He became known to the local police, and was eventually arrested for having a "matchbox sized" amount of cannabis. His lawyer, wanting to keep Erickson out of prison, pleaded insanity... tentatively calling him schizophrenic. Not a good move. Erickson was shifted off to the nearby insane asylum... one that recently had severe riots. In one incident, the inmates strapped one of the doctors to a table and said "Let's shock him 'til he s***s" in an attempt to recreate what they'd had to endure. As Erickson arrives, few doctors want to practice there and the inmates are the craziest of the crazy. Erickson is there for almost five years, writing music, getting Etc treatments, and eventually forming a band with child molesters, incestual rapists, and family killers. Two of the band were all three of those.
Erickson shuts off his brain to survive, but is eventually freed after a lawyer wonders why a guy locked up for marijuana and schizophrenia has been banged up with violent criminals. But, of course, the Roky that is released is even more messed up. He thinks he's a space alien, with evil voices constantly talking to him. In an attempt to help him, one friend gets him to sign a document ("with a gold seal to make it look serious") where he professes to the world that he's an alien. He figures this is the only way the voices will stop pestering him. The voices need to accept Roky is one of their own.
What's fascinating about YOU'RE GONNA MISS ME is that it continues from there. All that exposition I've just given is only a small part of the story. Everything could have easily been presented as another tale of a 60s' musician driven loopy by too many drugs. But it isn't. Erickson is cared for by his slightly batty mother, who's the only person he's willing to see. She doesn't want him taking schizophrenic meds... while one of his brothers - a renowned tuba player - wants to "save" Roky.
The documentary doesn't offer any concrete answers and it's refreshing for that. The mother is blighted by religion and borderline insanity, while Erickson's brother is in serious therapy and at one stage weeps in the arms of his therapist. Yet at various stages both are sympathetic. Even Roky is sometimes an irritation as well as being someone you feel desperately sorry for. It was also good to see a documentary without a voice-over, the power of which is evident when Roky's father leaves the brother's house for the walk home... just see where he ends up, folks.
YOU'RE GONNA MISS ME blows some of the few remaining myths about the joys of excessive drug use, but also explodes myths on therapy and recovery. It reminded me of CRUMB in that the stories of the people around the protagonist are as interesting - if not more so - than the focus of the documentary. Although a few people I had heard of (the Angry Samoans' Mike and Butthole Surfers' Gibby) turn up in the documentary, the full story of Erickson had completely passed me by. It was certainly a lucky accident to come across YOU'RE GONNA MISS ME. Unlike some of the drug literature I've read, I'm very glad I checked this out. It's insightful, and highly recommended. And, hell, the final scene even brings a good ol' tear to the eye.
Wisconsin Death Trip (1999)
Fascinating documentary and a good summary of a fine book
Based on the controversial book by Michael Lesy, WISCONSIN DEATH TRIP was originally shown on British TV as part of BBC's excellent ARENA series. ARENA often showcased excellent documentaries... including one about Bukowski, amongst others. It's since been replaced by STORYVILLE, which does the same great job. It buys in worldwide documentaries and gives them a healthy TV audience... WRESTLING WITH SHADOWS, THE STORY OF ANVIL and many more. Britain can be very proud of its dedication to interesting documentaries.
For those who don't know the book, WISCONSIN DEATH TRIP is a collection of real-life photographs and newspaper reports from late 19th Century Wisconsin... particularly a town called "Black River Falls". The documentary begins and ends with the chief news writer (an Englishman called Frank Cooper) gushing: "We can say - honestly - that we know of few states or cities which offer the advantages as those offered by Wisconsin and Black River Falls. Our city was founded in 1854, and soon attracted industrious settlers from Norway, Germany, and other countries of the European continent.... Our site is not only picturesque but it also boasts a fertile countryside that grows everything known to this climate, in abundance.... When considering all of these advantages, it is safe to assume that nowhere in the length and breadth of this continent of ours can be found a more desirable residence than Black River Falls."
This sets up the sucker punch of the movie. Because - as is still the case with modern news - despair is the most newsworthy emotion. The news reports - and the documentary - fixate on death, suicide and psychosis. There are a few funny notes - including a nice little piece on runaway lovers getting married - but it's largely a downbeat ride. WISCONSIN DEATH TRIP annoyed a lot of folks when it originally came out in the 1970s, due to its negative vibe. They felt it corrupted the past of Wisconsin, which already is often portrayed as desolate and loopy because of their harsh winters... and because both Ed Gein and Jeffrey Dahmer came from there.
The movie lays on the comparison between the past/present Wisconsin stronger than the book. With little pieces of voiceovers of people in asylums to a few cutaways to modern Wisconsin life. The director consciously tries to show the relevance of these old stories to modern life. That touch adds extra weight to the original book and works beautifully.
I loved the fact that the stories from the past are so similar to the stories now. For all the bleating about the past being better than today, the same problems exist. Poverty driving people insane. Teenage kids out of control. People committing suicide over unrequited love. A continuing thread through WISCONSIN DEATH TRIP is Mary Sweeny who - after a bash of the head - goes around smashing windows because it makes her feel better. To calm her nerves beforehand, she does cocaine (which was legal back then). So many people forget the truth of their childhood, and the further history goes back the more romanticised it becomes. WISCONSIN DEATH TRIP does a spectacular job of exposing that myth.
For all the modern complaints on drunkenness and binge drinking, 18th Century London (and Gin Lane) was much worse. If you think drugs are bad now, in 19th Century Britain, babies were given opium sticks (called "laudanum") to suck on and keep quiet. In the early Victorian era, kids of 6 or 7 were regularly at work in factories. In iron mines, the average lifespan of workers was 27. For all those who complain about the present, the truth is a different story.
Aside from the historical insight of WISCONSIN DEATH TRIP, it's been put together very well. The incredibly powerful photos from the book (by Charles Van Schaik) are included, and the narration of the news reports has been pared down to the most eye-catching stories. British director James Marsh (from MAN ON WIRE) is at the helm, and there's a beautiful attention to detail to WISCONSIN DEATH TRIP. From the beaten-up costumes, to simpler aspects such as the rootsy music and the beautiful, creepy lighting. Apparently this was a three-year labour of love for Marsh, and it shows. It creates as dynamic a movie as you can get from photos, voiceovers and crime-scene reconstructions.
WISCONSIN DEATH TRIP really hit a good note with me, and it should with you too. It's the information - and the great photos - that drive it, but it's done with such skill that it's also entertaining and addictive viewing.
Another underrated movie that's worth checking out....
Maurice Pialat's POLICE begins with an extensive interrogation by a cop... played by Gerard Depardieu. The shots almost exclusively flick back and forth in medium shot. To begin with, the criminal is defiant. But over the course of almost 10 minutes, he's slowly broken down into a confession. It's a fascinating scene to watch... and although it's not recreated directly throughout the rest of the movie (10 minute scenes with two shots would get tiresome quickly...), the mood of the opening scene permeates through the whole of POLICE. The movie is a slow breakdown of the facade people build around themselves.
Much of the dialogue seems improvised. Characters stumble over words, and get caught in seemingly unrelated conversations. The "Masters of Cinema" extras DVD catches Pialat berating actors on set... trying to pull something out of the improvisation. He was apparently a real pain to work for, but the end result seems to work in POLICE.
Depardieu is the centre of attention, playing the slightly shonky cop, Louis. He's hulking in size, 6ft tall and a pretty wide load, often towering over the bad guys and dwarfing the various girls he flirts with. At times, Louis is almost comedic, grabbing every ass around him. He thinks he's a whizz with the ladies and the greatest cop around... and because he throws his weight into it all, people believe him.
The depth of POLICE is we see Louis behind the charade, progressively doubting himself. He's falling in love with one of his suspects, Noria (played by Sophie Marceau, who ended up sinking into being a Bond girl in THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH) and it's eating away at him. He's bending more rules than ever, and getting unnecessarily interested in a girl whose own family don't trust her. Louis becomes frantic, reaching out for prostitutes, drink and - eventually - frantically humping Noria in the Police HQ.
The strength of the movie - and whether you'll like it or not - revolves around Louis. He's very irritating at the start of the movie... a letch, an idiot, someone searching for reactions from people. He's sleazy and seemingly irremediable. Yet, at the movie goes on and as his vulnerabilities creep through, he becomes strangely likable. Can he trust Noria? Is she leading him on to save herself, or is she as lost as he is? So many films have predictable relationships but this one is a good 'un. We neither trust Noria or Louis, yet we feel sympathetic towards both of them. This all leads to a real doozy of an ending - and a thought provoking one too.
POLICE isn't a quick watch. It lacks dynamic scenes, and it's only for those who can take constant dialogue. It's also not a movie laden with style. But when close-ups are used, they're used to great effect. Louis's confused big-nosed mug... Noria's seemingly flawless good looks... something's going on behind those surfaces. You may gripe at the movie needing to be shorter and tighter, but it'll leave an impact because of these two fascinating characters. And, for that reason, it's well worth getting hold of a copy of POLICE.
Hancock & Joan (2008)
Excellent TV drama about Tony Hancock
Tony Hancock became one of the key British comedians of the 50s and 60s due to his work on HANCOCK'S HALF HOUR and THE TONY HANCOCK SHOW. Hancock's style is deadpan and miserabilist, and often very funny. He has a hangdog Bilko-like expression, but with none of Bilko's cock-eyed confidence. When Bilko fails, he will try the same lousy idea (changed slightly) the next episode. Hancock is arrogant on the surface but is ultimately a coward who takes all the problems to heart... as if the world is conspiring against him.
In real life, Hancock wasn't far removed from his character. Once the HANCOCK shows ended (mostly due his selfish removal of his double-act partner Sid James, and his growing disgust for the writers), he felt he could make it on his own. But he didn't - or couldn't - and ended up doing three shows in Australia before committing suicide in 1968, with a bottle of vodka and a bunch of amphetamines.
This is just the sort of story that Hollywood would pick up. There's MAN ON THE MOON and RAY and many more biopics about self-destructive outsiders. But Hancock was never big in America, so it was left for the BBC to do the job in a drama-documentary called HANCOCK AND JOAN.
Despite the prestige the BBC has abroad (mostly for its news programmes and natural history documentaries) it has a pretty awful record for TV dramas. Soap operas are the prime-time focus in the UK, but the need to quickly pump out episodes leads to terrible stuff. BBC's higher budget productions are turgid historical dramas which rely mostly on period costumes to try and hide some horribly stagy acting. Dramas set in modern times end up as a shouty low-rent version of Hollywood films and - increasingly - US TV.
All this made HANCOCK AND JOAN a pleasant surprise. There's a little shouting in the film, and only at moments when people are angry. It's not shot with much flair, but there's a few moments that raise above usual TV movies. I liked the little introduction of fantasy when Hancock sees a vision of himself as he commits suicide. The shots inside the drunk-tank are also pretty innovative. HANCOCK AND JOAN - of course - has the annoying washed-out colours emblematic of the British style. But the film has enough other things going for it, you can mostly forgive its bland look.
HANCOCK AND JOAN was part of a series of BBC drama-docs about British comedians who led messed-up lives. One - FANTABULOSA - is one of the most unintentionally funny things you will see... with Michael Sheen over-acting (as he did in FROST VS NIXON, THE QUEEN and everything else) as Kenneth Williams, star of the CARRY ON movies.
But HANCOCK AND JOAN is acted - and written - with real skill. Hancock is hateful at times, but also funny and charismatic. It actually makes sense that Joan (the wife of DAD'S ARMY star John Le Mesurier) would fall in love with him... and that's rare in this sort of thing. I loved the moment where she's screwing Hancock and his mother knocks on the door. "I'm coming!" he shouts. Joan giggles... and so does his mother when he lets her into the room. There's a real tenderness between the characters, based on jokiness and honesty.
The moments of madness - including Hancock drunkenly tearing the place apart during a dinner with Joan's parents - are effectively shocking. Joan is an interesting character, vulnerable yet ballsy. She becomes very likable, and her sink into alcohol abuse to try and keep up with Hancock feels credible. The only duff performance is Alex Jennings as John Le Mesurier, which is very self-aware and parodic of the real life man.
Anyway, this is a once in a decade, complete recommendation of a British TV drama. HANCOCK AND JOAN is well worth checking out, and streets ahead of celebrated British "realist" films like CONTROL and SOMERS TOWN. And it should work for those who don't even know who Tony Hancock was. It's not an all-time classic by any means, but in the context of British documentary-style stuff, it's one of the very few that feel both genuine and engrossing.
Walls in the City (1994)
Have Bukowski fans seen this one yet?
Have you heard of WALLS IN THE CITY? And did you ever think it was linked to Bukowski? Probably not, but the middle of the three stories that make up WALLS IN THE CITY is adapted from a Bukowski short story called REUNION. The other two are Bukowski-like stuff scripted by Sikora and, surprisingly, one of them is very good.
The good 'un is FLY ON THE WALL, featuring David Yow. Yow is the brilliant almost-midget singer from THE Jesus LIZARD, and he does a great job playing a "happy insomniac" hanging out in a bar. He ends up going home with a gal but, in between bouts of falling asleep, she has sex with another guy instead. Yow's character is largely undisturbed, blandly watching TV. WALLS IN THE CITY tries to focus on the low-life, and it's captured best here because the mood is so laid back. It's a fun tale. REUNION is the next story, only it's been renamed LOVE, AFTER THE WALLS CLOSE IN and it's been rejigged a little. It's about Harry, a guy recently released from prison, hooking up with his ex Madge. It's OK, but not great. It's a violent story but it doesn't shock or engage enough. As throughout WALLS IN THE CITY, the problems lay in the lazy Super-8 cinematography and the performance of Paula Killen (who features in all three tales). I'm always wary when people call something intentionally "rough" or "naive"... an artist should still be adept at telling a story visually.
Cinema Verite can work, but there's a fine line between that and a student video. The Super 8 gives the whole thing an overuse of grain, and Sikora revels in not using a tripod. But at least use more angles for ****'s sake... at least try and enhance the stories a little visually. Equally, Killen seems nabbed from a student film. But, as with any film that uses overlong shots, it seems harsh to attack her. The fact she has to emote so much is mostly due to the direction.
The third story ONE TIME SHE PLAYED THE B-SIDE is about a businesswoman (Killen) meeting a lowlife in a bar. Bill Cusack (as good as Yow, but in a showier role) falls into a reverie of the relationship going out of kilter, and them fighting over money. It's neat enough, with a nice ending, but it's the least interesting because of the coldness of Killen's character.
WALLS IN THE CITY has a limited release on Region 1 DVD, but it's not worth shelling out the $30 for. I picked it up on video, and it's worth firing up the old VHS machine and spending your 6 quid or 9 dollars to check out a little oddity. WALLS IN THE CITY is nowhere near the worst way to spend an hour of your life. But there remains the nagging feeling that if you had a couple of friends who could act, you could do equally as well.
The Stone Tape (1972)
Flawed TV movie... but not Nigel Kneale's fault
THE STONE TAPE has an interesting core idea, and one closely linked to its time. Computers are growing in power and importance, and a band of British scientists are out to create a new form of recording data to make - as one scientist jokes - "honourable Nippon admit defeat". The key is to replace magnetic tape with SOMETHING... but in the process of setting up the research, they discover their large storage room is haunted by a ghost.
After the initial shock, they start thinking... What is a ghost? What is it scientifically? Isn't it just information stored in walls? A recording that plays back for unknown reasons? And one that plays back without the need for a TV or a stereo. So they set about trying to unlock the secret of the recording, in the hopes of cashing in on a new recording medium... stone! And they said CDs were indestructible....
THE STONE TAPE has a cult following, and its theory of ghosts being recordings is now called "The Stone Tape Theory". The film is written by Nigel Kneale, who also created QUATERMASS AND THE PIT, and both the concept and the dialogue touch high levels. There's some great stuff with scientists larking about and playfully ribbing the only female scientist.
Peter - the leader of the scientists - is also interesting... if only for being one of the biggest a**holes ever committed to film. He's having an affair with the female scientist (Jane Asher) but still fields calls from his wife - and kid - even when Asher is in the same room. At one point he says: "How's what's-his-name? The horse." Pause as he waits for the reply. "Yeah, yeah!" he says, "Chuffy." CHUFFY. He forgets the name Chuffy? And on a horse he bought for his kid... what a ***t! He also responds to any problems by either insulting someone, shouting or - and this is true - pointing a deafening sound machine at it and turning it on full whack.
The problems with THE STONE TAPE lie in the fact it isn't really a film. It's a BBC TV movie, and (unlike the ambitious and skilled THREADS) it's one that adheres vehemently to the three rules of filming TV movies: 1. You are only allowed to shoot three close-ups in the whole piece, so carefully choose when you use them. No extreme close-ups are allowed. 2. Avoid high and low angles unless people are going up or down stairs. 3. As much as possible, follow the action by wheeling the camera around rather than cutting shots.
This leads to a horribly static viewing experience, and also leaves the actors out to dry sometimes. You try reciting long pieces of dialogue with the camera just looking at you. But, hey, maybe I'm just trying to think of excuses for some silly acting. A couple of times, people respond to seeing the ghost by running away, falling to the ground, and then pulling themselves along and wailing. Asher is one of these people, and she's been given a duff role. Her character is very curious - she's either crying or stonily distant. She runs the gamut of emotions of A and Z. And while Peter is entertaining for a while, eventually I grow sick of his stagy Shakespearean enunciation.
I can't recommend watching THE STONE TAPE. In the end, the best thing about it was the idea itself... maybe Kneale's initial treatment would have been a good read. But as a movie, it's far too hamstrung by the visuals and the acting to be anything more than a curiosity.
The Quiet Earth (1985)
Brilliant, underrated movie... go on, check out THE QUIET EARTH....
The New Zealand film industry is not a big one. On average, they make three or four movies a year, and they're often co-funded by the government. It says something for the New Zealand government that they decided to sink their cash into a science fiction movie about the "last man on earth". If it was Britain's Film Council, it would be about a postal worker named George and his adventures in Coronation Street.
Bruno Lawrence plays Zac Dobson. Zac has created the ultimate weapon to wipe out countries, a clear reference to nuclear weapons. Incidentally, since the movie New Zealand has become completely nuclear free... a campaign supported by THE QUIET EARTH's writer/producer Sam Pillsbury. In line with Pillsbury's beliefs, Zac is disgusted by his own creation. The story begins after he's taken bunch of pills to try and kill himself. When he wakes up - PHOOM - no-one is there. Someone's set off his bomb and everyone's been vaporised - except for him. Cue some mesmerising shots of empty New Zealand streets. Filmmaker Geoff Murphy went on to direct such "classics" as FREEJACK and UNDER Siege 2, but he's on top form here with some beautiful shots.
I like a lot of last people of Earth movies. OMEGA MAN, I AM LEGEND, DAY OF THE DEAD... even NIGHT OF THE COMET is fun if you have a vagina. The isolation of the movies gives you time to know and then understand the lead characters. The character of Zac is utterly fascinating as a result. He feels guilty over creating the weapon that kills the world, yet he doesn't want to kill himself any more. In an odd way, finally, he's free.
But Zac's fleeting freedom comes at a cost to his sanity. He dresses up in women's clothes, makes life sized cut-outs of world leaders, and then gives passionate speeches about how he's killed everyone. These scenes are completely engrossing. In fact, the first forty minutes of THE QUIET EARTH - when Bruno Lawrence is the only guy on screen - are incredible. There's many facets to Zac's character, and you feel annoyed yet hugely empathetic towards the guy.
Eventually Zac does find a couple of survivors - a Maori guy (Pete Smith, who appears in EVERY movie that feature Maori) and what appears to be Nicole Kidman's paler, even more ginger, sister. Briefly Zac holds hopes of repopulating the world with bald, pale skinned children with his new woman... but you know the whole time it isn't going to work out.
Bruno Lawrence also teamed up on UTU and GOODBYE PORK PIE with Geoff Murphy, but this is the pick of the bunch... partly because Lawrence gets so much more screen time in THE QUIET EARTH. In real-life, Lawrence was a hard drinker and partier, and he has that 'rough diamond' charisma that takes over scenes in his movies. At one stage in THE QUIET EARTH, he confronts God with a sawn-off shotgun and if you listen carefully you can just hear God shitting himself. For THE QUIET EARTH to succeed, Zac Dobson has to be damn interesting. Luckily, he is.
One note - try to avoid the British DVD release, which is a pan and scan one. Get the American widescreen version and see if you're equally astonished by the final shots of THE QUIET EARTH. Like so many elements of a great - yet largely unknown - movie, it really sticks in the brain.
Fat City (1972)
Up there with Huston's later masterpieces
FAT CITY begins with Tully, slowly getting out of bed in his crusty, dilapidated apartment. Tully (Stacy Keach) is a retired boxer who wants one last shot at the big time... well, as big as you can get in gyms and halls that only house a few hundred fans. In his first workout for a year, he meets the 18-year-old Ernie (Jeff Bridges) and sees him a rising light in the sport. Eventually both of them hook up with a well-meaning - if completely inept - trainer played by "Coach" from CHEERS (Nicholas Colastano).
Despite the boxing in the movie, FAT CITY is refreshingly different from RAGING BULL and ROCKY, and substandard clones of those two great movies. While RAGING BULL uses boxing to the tell an epic story of rise and fall, and ROCKY is about someone working to prove himself to the world; FAT CITY is about the basic struggle that people go through just to make a few bucks. The fights are clumsy, and give a good indication of the lack of technique that must feature in the amateur/low professional scene. Fighters still box even if they're pissing blood the night before... because it's the only way they can make a living.
Stacy Keach is wonderful in his role. He isn't sporting his usual moustache, and his harelip gives the indication of a guy who been in too many scraps. He shambles around and keeps repeating to himself that he'll get in shape again... that he WILL rise out of his lousy jobs and return to his - largely romanticised - boxing career. But booze keeps pulling him down, leading to some hilarious - and poignant - scenes of him as a drunk. He shacks up with a gal, and she matches him blow for blow, in scenes reminiscent of BARFLY. In fact, I'd put the movie much closer to a BARFLY than any boxing movie.
FAT CITY is often very funny. Susan Tyrell - as Tully's shack-job - brilliantly slurs her way through a great, volatile part. Colastano comes out with some belters of lines, and is as humorous and lovable as his Coach role in CHEERS. But within all the humour, there's a real undercurrent that the movie is actually about isolation and loneliness... a theme beautifully reinforced by a memorable final scene. Whereas Ernie manages to find his own escape routes, Tully just keeps finding dead ends.
As ever, John Huston knows where to put the camera. It's a relaxed style but he always manages to pop the camera in a great place. FAT CITY is almost up there with the likes of Huston's UNDER THE VOLCANO and WISE BLOOD... a couple of my favourite movies.
I'm surprised FAT CITY isn't more renowned - perhaps it got a little lost in a year that also brought people THE GODFATHER and DELIVERANCE. For whatever reason you haven't checked it out before, have a go at checking it out now.
Idiots and Angels (2008)
Bill Plympton returns to form after 'Hair High'
Bill Plympton is a workhorse. Most of his animations are produced virtually alone... hunched over his drawing board for years at a time. And yet he loves doing it... and that enthusiasm comes across in his work. There's a lot of life to his best animations, which retain the scratchy lines of the coloured pencils he uses to fill them in. Plympton started as a caricaturist and the characters he draws have that exaggerated quality to them. He's also endearingly filthy. There's some very funny cartoons on 'Bill's Dirty Shorts'... one of which is a date told from the inside of a woman's mouth. And, no, it's not a sausage that she's eating at the end of the animation.
Plympton's last movie 'Hair High' was very disappointing. It had occasional elements of his sleazy sense of humour (including a chicken with a rampant erection), but focused more on a 50s' love story. Another problem was that the animation was much more cell based. The scratchy pencil lines were largely gone, replaced by flatter paints. This is the problem with so many animations. For all of people's gushing over Pixar's stuff they have - amongst a bunch of problems - very little artistry to the animation. There's something dead about CGI animation. Going back to Tex Avery and Chuck Jones, to Will Eisner and comic books, so much of the power of cartoons is the way they exaggerate reality. The distorted faces, the "pops" as characters contort to get the emotion across. It's not that far removed from expressionist art. The image portrays the emotion of the character and the animator. Plympton's pencil style gives his animation a grubby and lively feel, a full representation of what he's into.
Thankfully 'Idiots and Angels' returns to the pencil drawn style, and with it comes a lot of energy. There's also moments of his trademark sleaze... from the initial joke about the lead guy having (what we think is) a hard-on. The same guy also has sexual fantasies over the cleaner at his local bar, wrapping his body around her and licking as he goes.
But 'Idiots and Angels' is much more of - well - an art movie. 'I Married A Strange Person' is pure filth... and hilarious for it. But 'Idiots and Angels' is a full-blown story. A guy - previously an evil gun-runner and hit-man - grows wings. He tries to tie them down, but they always break free. He tries to saw them off, but they grow back. And as they grow, they start controlling him. Knocking his hand away as he reaches for a tit. Getting him to return money from a robbery. Forcing him to rescue people. Eventually, they help him fall in love with the cleaner. And through all that, there's just enough sleaze and violence to ensure the sappy side of the movie doesn't become cloying.
'Idiots and Angels' creeps up on you. I was pretty convinced in the first 20 minutes that it wasn't going to be good. It's initially slow, and there are very few gags to ease the pacing. But, as with all of Plympton's "real" work, the beauty of the pictures draws you along and - in this case - results in a fascinating story. No character in the movie talks (aside from the odd incoherent grumble) and 'Idiots and Angels' plays like a clever, silent movie. There's some lovely transitions from image to image using animation. The water from a shower morphs into a running tap then milk pouring... all to quickly get across the idea of the morning routine. There is music - including a couple of great old tracks from Tom Waits - and it all gives the movie a dreamlike feel. And that feel makes complete sense with the way the story progresses.
I did prefer 'I Married A Strange Person' because it's immense fun. But, if you're in the right contemplative mood, 'Idiots and Angels' has a hell of a lot going for it. And, of course, it's just nice to see a little art return to animation.
King of the Ants (2003)
Criminally underrated, insightful movie
Stuart Gordon is not one of the most famous horror directors, but he's made a number of excellent movies (RE-ANIMATOR, FROM BEYOND, EDMOND) and only a couple of truly bad 'uns (DAGON, ROBOT JOX). Like EDMOND, KING OF THE ANTS is more of a thriller... but ANTS has a number of truly horrific scenes that should ensure its appeal to horror fans.
The story is about Sean, a twenty-something housepainter. He's working with George Wendt, who played another housepainter (Norm) in CHEERS and branches out into being an electrician in this role as "Duke". But while Norm and Duke look damn similar, Duke is a scary guy and a complete a**hole.
Duke quickly realises that Sean is desperate for money to escape his ratty daily grind. Sean is sent to see Matthews... another a**hole played by the reliably loopy and sweaty Daniel Baldwin. Turns out Matthews is a low-level gangster who's willing to pay Sean $13K to kill a lawyer for him. But - after Sean commits the murder - both Duke and Matthews refuse to pay up. Turns out they never believed Sean would take a measly 13K to kill someone, resulting in this great little speech from Duke: "You're nothing. You're a worthless piece of sh** who messed around in something you should have left alone. I don't want to ever see you again... and if I do, I'll kill you and I won't even break into a sweat... You're an insect... you're king of the ants." Yet Sean doesn't give in. Even when he's beaten up, captured and threatened some more. Killing him isn't an option because Sean says his buddy will release information to the police that'll nail Duke and Matthews.
What follows is relentlessly bleak; using violence intelligently (and rarely) to maximise the impact of certain scenes. The brutality - and realism - of the murder makes you feel desperately sorry for the victim. Equally, the torment that Sean is put through - being strapped to a chair and beaten by a golf club until he suffers hallucinations - is very uncomfortable viewing. And that's how a good horror should operate. KING OF THE ANTS doesn't sugar-coat the violence, but it also never allows you to become numb to it.
KING OF THE ANTS works on every level. The bad guys are so vile, you feel like cheering when the disfigured Sean manages to break free. Equally, Sean's descent from a feisty guy to a psychopath is well played. Stuart Gordon isn't flashy in his direction, but the movie's nicely paced and creepily lit. There also some natty latex effects (the wound on Sean's head is particularly impressive) and a truly horrific nightmare sequence, which includes a giant monster eating its own faeces, and a chick with an impressively large chainsaw... oh, and an impressively large penis.
Another thing that lifts KING OF THE ANTS above standard horror/thriller fare is the script, which is adapted from his own novel by British comedy actor Charlie Higson (SWISS TONY, THE FAST SHOW). It's got natural dialogue and a few characters that stick in the head. It's also a clever, deft study of how far a human can be pushed... and what happens when they eventually get chance to push back.
Even as Sean becomes progressively more insane, and dangerously obsessed with his victim's wife, it's still hard not to feel sorry for the guy. You admire him for surviving. And because you feel something for Sean, you're eager to see how things'll turn out for him.
As with other strong low-budget films, it's pretty easy to figure out why KING OF THE ANTS wasn't even a minor hit when it was released. Yes, it doesn't have big stars or a marquee director, but it also didn't do the little things right. It had a dated-looking trailer, poor stock music and a badly designed poster. But its aim is purely to be a good movie, rather than one that revolves around a marketable gimmick. In the long run, the film will win out. Eventually, it'll become a cult movie... so be amongst the first to notice that.
You'll probably have pretty low expectations beforehand, but that's what makes finding a little gem like KING OF THE ANTS all the more gratifying. Give it the good home it deserves, and dig out of the bargain bin at your DVD shop.
O' Horten (2007)
Not quite KITCHEN STORIES or FACTOTUM, but worthwhile
O'HORTEN comes from Bent Hamer, the director of KITCHEN STORIES and FACTOTUM. I enjoyed both of those a great deal yet - story-wise - they had very little in common. One is about a project in Scandinavia to watch people in their kitchens 24 hours a day and determine how kitchens can be redesigned. One is about Charles Bukowski's life, focusing more on the comedic aspects but with a great sting in the tail. Given the difference in those two movies, don't bat an eyelid when you find out Hamer's latest is about a retiring train driver from Norway called Odd Horten.
The movie starts with Horten driving the train swiftly through tunnels in a snow-filled landscape. He smokes his pipe and shows little emotion. The camera follows the train in and out of the tunnels, with that satisfying sound train-users will know. Horton barely speaks... in fact he barely speaks for the first half of the movie. He is given a retirement party and seems thoroughly embarrassed by it... especially by the little brass train statue and extended "choo-choo" salute that the other drivers give him. When the party moves to a guy's flat, Horten decides he needs some tobacco for his pipe. By the time he's returned, the door is accidentally locked and he needs to climb in through another window and gets tied up talking to a little kid. It's a strange scene, but a good introduction to the mood of the rest of the movie. Horten becomes caught up with the kid's need for someone to talk to. Much as he wants to get away, Horten eventually is drawn in due to politeness and, later, interest.
Horten is a guy married to his job. Free of that, he's at a loose end and forced to figure out what he wants to do. Hell, life's train has passed him by... hence all those shots at the start of the movie. But, and this is the real strength of the movie, this is never bashed over the viewer's head. It comes across - while being consistently interesting throughout - as just a man getting up to interesting adventures. It never feels self-conscious. The movie ties together at the end, but you're not aware of it building in that direction.
O'HORTEN reminded me of Jim Jarmusch, who gets this sort of realist movie - generally - spot on. Little happens in STRANGERS IN PARADISE and DOWN BY LAW, but there are fascinating characters and situations. They're often wacky, but that wackiness is played straight and leads to some hilarious - and touching - moments. There's that moment in GHOST DOG when Ghost Dog's French pal takes him up to a roof and they look at a man building a boat on the top of an apartment block. The boat could never be lifted off there, the guy is just doing it for the satisfaction of knowing he can do it. Is that happening everywhere? No. But maybe there's someone doing it somewhere, and why not have it in a movie? Life is as dull as the scenes you pick.
Odd Horten meets a bunch of interesting people and gets caught in interesting situations. Horten goes for a late night skinny dip in his local pool, but is disturbed by a couple of lesbians. Cue a hasty escape where the only shoes Horten can find are high heels. He even meets a guy who has driven blindfolded - perfectly - through city streets across the world. Would you believe the guy? Well, what better way to find out than going out on a trip with him? And Horten become increasingly inclined to finally see life rather than letting it pass him by.
In the wrong hands, it could all come across as silly. But, after the initial surprise, it doesn't. In one scene, Horten goes to visit his very elderly mother. She sits silently in her chair - lost in her own world. At one stage, he mentions her ski-jumping skis in the corner of her room and a smile flickers across her face. She always wanted to be a ski-jumper as a kid, and it's only at that moment that the senility breaks and the woman comes through. And that's just one of a number of touching scenes in the movie. And, as through much of the movie, that mood is emphasised by some beautiful camera-work and scenes. They're frozen landscapes, with snow swirling in the wind.
Baard Owe is wonderful in the lead role. It's always hard to judge the acting in foreign-language films because we can't tell if they're pronouncing the dialogue well. Apparently Bergman was never popular in Sweden until after his death, partly for that reason. English speakers often give a free pass to foreign movies, and often have to presume the acting is good. Well, Baard Owe is genuinely great in this one, and you can judge it fully because it's a largely silent performance. He runs a series of emotions with the slightest of movements, depicting a seemingly distant man with something simmering under the surface. The real Baard Owe is known for being an eccentric nut-job who sometimes wears tailored, slightly electrified suits that give you a shock if you touch him. So Owe really had to get in character for Odd Horten.
O'HORTEN is a quiet movie. These types of movies are often called "gentle" but I think this packs more of a punch than that. And I think that's the big connection between all three of Bent Hamer's movies. They meander along, seemingly without direction, but they get somewhere great. If you're up for that kind of movie, this will fit the bill almost perfectly. Crack open a beer or some wine, and sink into it.
"Easy Andy" makes it into his own movie.
This one was often called the "lost Scorsese movie" but thanks the joys of DVD and YouTube, we can finally check it out. This is one of Scorsese's verite documentaries, this time focusing on the guy who played the gun-dealing "Easy Andy" in 'Taxi Driver'. Steven Prince was Scorsese's roommate for a while, and was also a music promoter (mostly for Neil Diamond) and drug addict before he turned to acting. American BOY catches up with him a couple of years after 'Taxi Driver', with Prince relating tales from his storied life.
The verite style of the documentary doesn't add too much to 'American Boy'. Scorsese pops up at the start, as the cameras start to roll. He looks high (this is from Scorsese's coke years), but who cares? Equally, there's an annoying guy in the background who keeps goading Prince to open up. But these are minor, short irritations. The joy of 'American Boy' is just Steven Prince sat there, telling his stories in a pretty masterful way. He has a good idea of pacing, drawing the audience in and out. You'd happily read a book of this guy's short stories.
What's also nice about 'American Boy' is that Prince doesn't fall into the pitfalls of the vast majority of drug literature. Half of the many tedious drug books are whines about how terrible it is to be an addict. The other half tediously aggrandise how insightful it is to be an addict. In doing this, taking drugs become the focus of the tales, and are therefore mechanical and repetitive.
The drugs in Prince's life are only the background to his interesting tales. He's high, but the drugs aren't the story... genuine events are. Accidentally frying a kid with wires from his TV van. Cops busting in on him and his dealer, but managing to escape arrest by bursting out crying. Shooting an armed robber as he works in a lousy job at a petrol station.
Prince is likable and consistently interesting, and the 50 or so minutes of 'American Boy' pass very quickly and pleasingly. There was another documentary made about Prince made in 2009 called, fittingly, 'American Prince'. Here's hoping 'American Prince' is as interesting as this one. And, of course, it's great to hear Prince is still alive.
At the end of 'American Boy', he relates the story of talking to his dying father. Prince's father - despite all of his son's mistakes - was impressed by his ability to survive. At first Prince glosses over the magnitude of it, but Scorsese eventually draws out the truth. It's a touching and positive way to end a documentary about an interesting and likable guy.
Troubling and excellent serial killer movie
ANGST is a thoroughly unpleasant film. But don't let that put you off. A movie about a messed-up serial killer should feel that way. It's testament to the skill of the filmmaking and the acting that a movie gets under your skin. Too many so-called shockers fail in that regard. The most obvious example is 'Saw', with its stupid, hyperactive editing and its ridiculous killer. 'Angst' feels as real as this type of movie can get.
It starts with the nameless psychopath holed up in prison, aware of his own sadistic thoughts but hiding them from the prison's psychologists. When they try to psychoanalyse him, he just says he dreams about flowers. I guess the Austrian legal system is more trusting than other countries, because they let the guy out again after almost stabbing his mother to death (four-year sentence) and then killing a 70-year-old (ten-year sentence).
Within an hour of release, he's gnawing on a sausage in a café (via some disgusting extreme close-ups) and leering at some women, wondering how he's going to kill them. But he's sane enough to know he can't get away with it, so he gets out of the place.
It's only a brief delay. Soon the psychopath is in a taxi with a female driver. She reminds him of an ex-girlfriend who used to love being abused. When that plan goes tits-up, he runs into the woods, frustrated and desperate to kill. He breaks into what he thinks is a deserted house... until a disabled man wheels up to him and calls him "Papa". Then that guy's sister and elderly mother show up too....
'Angst' is often compared to 'Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer'... another troubling but excellent serial killer movie. ANGST lacks the depth of style that 'Henry' has, which is brilliantly acted and directed with a bunch of memorable moments. But 'Angst' has a number of unique things going for it. The hand-held shots are incredibly smooth and dreamlike, hovering in front of the killer's frantic face. It reminded me of the odd Eastern European style of 'The Cremator', another very creepy killer flick. The camera must be on some movable scaffold attached to the actor, either that or the camera operator was extremely light of their feet.
The deaths in 'Angst' are also brutal, nasty, and (save for blood spurting on the killer's face from the wrong angle) uncomfortably real. There's also interesting artistic touches, one of which is the family's pet dachshund. The dog's reaction to events is shown a lot, working in the mutt as a character. He looks curiously at the killer a lot, tries to bite him as he kills the girl, and eventually ends up as the killer's companion.
It's surprising that Kargl has no other credits other than a small documentary. I guess 'Angst' isn't the sort of movie that will ingratiate you to film producers. But it's a shame 'Angst' isn't better known. Apparently it was a big influence on Gaspar Noe ('Irreversible', 'I Stand Alone'), but I prefer 'Angst'. It doesn't revel in shocks so much as to desensitise you to them. The shocking moments work in 'Angst' because they're largely unpredictable.
In fact, the whole movie is pitched at the right levels. The dark humour isn't overstated, the pace is fluid, and it's neatly structured with a great ending. Find a way to get hold of a subtitled version of 'Angst' and check out an excellent example of its genre.
Hit Me (1996)
Flawed... but worth a look
Based on Jim Thompson's 'A Swell Looking Babe', 'Hit Me' is about a bellhop - Sonny - getting involved in a scheme to steal $500,000 from high-end, illegal poker players. The swell looking babe is a French girl, Monique, and Sonny thinks his share of the money will allow him to start a new life with her. That isn't going to come easily. Monique is unreliable, hooked up with the criminals, and has suicidal tendencies. The path of love never does run smooth, does it? As in the book, Sonny is an interesting character, fuelled by three elements - his love of Monique, his hatred of his job, and his refusal to accept help to care for his disabled brother, Leroy. Sonny is over his head in it all, and once the heist goes pear-shaped, he's frantically scraping around to try a make it clear.
Elias Kotsas does a decent job playing Sonny. He looks a lot like Robert De Niro and effectively gets across one of De Niro's big skills - playing desperate psychosis. At times this can veer into comedy, and it's unclear whether this is always intentional. Kotsas acts emotions very physically - mock-humping the air before he goes into Monique's room and pepping himself up by jumping through four different positions before meeting the main poker player.
As in Thompson's novels, 'Hit Me' presents a world where no character can be trusted. Even the "good guy" - Sonny - is as shady and money grabbing as the rest, at one stage happily considering becoming a cocaine dealer. It's film noir taken to its limits... not in terms of visual style but in terms of characterisation.
Stacked up against the beautiful economy of Mamet's 'Heist' or Tarantino's 'Reservoir Dogs', 'Hit Me' does drag a little and doesn't have quite enough twists and turns to merit lasting over two hours. And, whilst shot cleanly and effectively, it lacks cinematic impact. However, there's a nice undercurrent of philosophising over the nature of survival and, whether you're a Thompson fan or not, you could do worse than checking out this interesting little movie.
Superb portrayal of arrogance... and loneliness
Knut Hamsun's novel 'Hunger' is one of the better known books of the "outsider" canon. It's a great book, but one that must have been difficult to adapt into 'Sult'. It's written in first person, and has a dreamlike and rambling feel as the starving writer battles to write a masterpiece and raise enough money for a meal.
'Sult' starts worryingly. Carlsen's opening shots of the streets of Christiania (Oslo) in 1890 - with wacky carnival music for the theme tune - are reminiscent of a student film. The movie rapidly improves though... as soon as Per Oscarsson starts to act.
Oscarsson genuinely looks starved and near death, with hollow eyes and a teetering walk in the wind. Yet he also captures Pontus' showy arrogance and refusal to admit to anyone that he is starving. Oscarsson walks that line perfectly, and there's enough in his looks and movement to gradually draw sympathy. I found myself willing for Pontus to just ask for help... to the point I wanted to shake him... but he ploughs resolutely on, convinced he'll write something that will blow people's minds.
The film has also been criticised for portraying a stereotype of a starving artist. The counter argument is 'Sult' was one of the first literary portrayals of this stereotype. And even if Pontus isn't as much of a surprise as he would have been 40 - or 100 - years ago, the character is easily interesting enough to maintain attention. There's also plenty of black comedy in the scenes where Pontus visits the pawnbroker and offers ludicrous things for sale, while he still desperately tries to come across as moneyed and intellectual.
I think Carlsen did a superb job of capturing the spirit of 'Hunger', without following it slavishly enough to hurt the visual flow. The film doesn't use lengthy voice-overs, and prefers to let the acting and the situations show Pontus' complex mental state. For that reason, 'Sult' should play for both fans of 'Hunger' and for viewers interested in outsider folks fighting to exist. Sure, the cinematography lacks flair and the movie will be too slow for some, but it's a rewarding and thought provoking movie.
Amongst Bergman's better - and most underrated - movies
Many of Ingmar Bergman's movies touch on navel gazing - often featuring characters "breaking the fourth wall". We're expected to look at the character's face and glean the depth of their despair through this device. Sadly, as in 'Summer With Monica', 'Persona', 'Wild Strawberries' et al, this leads to some turgid movies.
Yet a batch of Bergman's movies are... well... movies. 'Virgin Spring' is one. Its focus is on telling a story, while subtly developing the characters. And, of course, there's 'The Seventh Seal" too. Another story led one, and great on the excesses of religion, death, hope.
'From The Life of Marionettes' is somewhere between the two styles of Bergman, but enough of the focus is on the story that I'd put this up with some of his movies that really did it for me. 'Marionettes' begins with the murder and rape of a woman... throwing you straight in at the deep-end. The scene is in Technicolor to heighten the impact. Much of the rest of the movie then switches to black and white flashbacks and flashforwards that cover the reasons behind - and the aftermath of - the murder.
The movie does come across as cold and clinical. It's so precise in its form, with lingering shots and a tendency toward tableau middle and long shots, that it is a hard movie to get excited by. But, that's probably just the point of it. Even though you feel like you're gently led by the hand through the movie, the story and characters are strong enough that you let yourself be. Well, mostly. I felt a little irritated by 10 or 20 minutes in the middle section, and I felt a couple of the scenes repeated themselves to beat us with a certain viewpoint.
But it works. 'From The Life of Marionettes' succeeds in achieving a hard thing - seeing into the mind of an insane man. And while it's not a fun watch, it's a very interesting one.
Thought provoking and brilliant
'Hardcore' (aka 'The Hardcore Life') proves that not every movie about sex has to be tawdry. It's been a weird divergence recently that sex in stuff like 'Sex and the City' is empowering, while sex everywhere else is demeaning. It doesn't have to be like that. Whatever angle you'll approach it from, 'Hardcore' will prove a thoughtful and deadly serious take on pornography.
George C. Scott plays Vandorn, a successful Midwestern businessman and strict Dutch Reformationist. On a church outing, his daughter does missing. He hires a private detective, Mast (Peter Boyle, excellent as always), to find her. Soon, Mast calls him to a local porno theatre and Vandorn has to watch his daughter in a porno movie. After another couple of months, Vandorn can't take it anymore. He goes out to find his daughter himself... forcing himself to confront everything that disgusts him.
George C. Scott paints a really interesting character. He starts off repulsed by investigating the porno world, and gets thrown out of a brothel for his trouble. But he ends up going undercover and reining in his religion because, as he says to Niki, the only thing that truly matters in his life is his daughter.
Ah, his daughter, Kirsten. I want to get that one bad thing out of the way, because everything else in 'Hardcore' is spot-on. Sadly, the gal playing Kirsten can't act at all. From pronouncing "g***amned" with no venom, to horribly overacting other stuff. But it really is the only tiny bum note in a superb movie.
Paul Schrader is on the top of his game as director. It's a very tight movie with no overlong or wasted scenes. There are also some nice visual touches. The shots of Vandorn distorted in mirrors to show his confusion; and one where Vandorn parks on a downward slope before he goes into a bondage place, to indicate him sinking into hell.
Gary Graham from 'Alien Nation' turns up as a sleaze who gets into a fight with George C. Scott. They throw each other through the paper-thin walls of the bondage place. For all the sleaziness of the environment, it's an artificially tough world... and one where Scott feels he can triumph.
Well shot and thought provoking, 'Hardcore' really is a superb film.
Dead End Drive-In (1986)
Trenchard-Smith's Best Movie
The opening of 'Dead-End Drive In' quickly sets out its world. There's been a series of disasters that have led to society struggling to survive. A food crisis, a financial crisis, and then an unemployment crisis. And Australia is suffering with the rest of them. Gangs of punks are fighting authority and crashing cars. As an Aussie movie, there's shades of 'Mad Max' to this, but it's given a more populated feel. Instead of empty streets, there's a bunch of people in 'Dead-End Drive In'. Despite the lack of budget for the movie, Brian Trenchard-Smith gives a real sense of lots of people suffering from the consequences of economic failure.
The movie follows Crabs and his girlfriend Carmen, who end up stranded in an almost post-apocalyptic drive-in cinema after their tires are stolen by the police. The drive-in cinema has nearly 200 people in a similar situation, lighting fires and glaring at each other. The stranded are given food vouchers to eat takeaway from the on-site greasy restaurant.
Crabs is a very engaging character. He wants to become a tough guy, but no matter how much he works out, runs and eats, Crabs is still regarded as a "scrawny b*****d". Yet, as soon as he's stranded in the drive-in, he wants to get away. He wants this so badly, he irritates his girlfriend and also incurs the wrath of people spray painting "Crabs can't get it up" on his car. Carmen, incidentally, is so attractive I spent the movie slightly slack jawed.
For a supposedly trashy movie, it's actually very cleverly done. The car crashes are spectacularly choreographed. Don't expect a special-effects laden movie - it's not that - but when effects are used they're used well. Sparks fly up as cars speed through large fires. Bullets ping off the walls and cars with some canny squib effects.
Above all, there are some great undercurrents to the movie. The way the drive-in deals with the unemployed seems to ring very true with the concept of ghettos. The controller of the drive-in cinema even provides them with drugs. Crabs becomes even more likable because - like us - he sees the drive-in as a huge prison infested with unfair racial divisions.
'Dead-End Drive In' is, naturally, a little rough around the edges. But by limiting the movie to the confines of a drive-in cinema, it creates a well realised world. It's also great to see everyone throwing their all into a movie. Maybe by focusing more on characters and a basic story of "me versus them" it simply doesn't overstretch. It's an enjoyable - and sometimes thought provoking - way to spend 92 minutes of your life.
American Movie (1999)
Strangely heartwarming documentary
'American Movie' is a documentary about Mark Borchardt and his attempt to make a movie about growing up in Milwaukee ('Northwestern'). Filming isn't going so well, and he's strapped for cash, so he returns to his old horror movie project, called "Coven". His plan is to hit the independent horror market, sell a bunch of videotapes and then sink the money into finishing 'Northwestern'.
The director, Chris Smith, could have just played the movie for laughs. And there are moments when the movie is laugh out-loud funny. Borchardt isn't the brightest guy in the world, and it's quickly obvious he's not much of a filmmaker. Borchardt's got the Milwaukee drawl they play off in 'Fargo', and he refuses to accept that "Coven" isn't pronounced "Cove-Ann". His best friend Mike is a more friendly version of Beavis complete with "huh, huh, huh" laugh. It's hilarious when Borchardt tries to ram his lead actor's - Tom's - head through a cupboard door. It takes a lot of attempts to get this money shot for 'Coven', while Tom's head steadily gets softer on top.
Yet that cupboard scene moment is actually a good indication of why 'American Movie' is a real good 'un. Tom takes the repeated bashes on his head with good humour. There's a real sense in the movie that people are pulling together to try to make a film. Borchardt is a bit of a jerk when he's drunk, but he's got a dream and he's going for it.
But the star of the movie is Uncle Bill, a curmudgeonly 83 year old who fronts the money for 'Coven' and occasionally busts into a song about his life: "Goodbye dear, hope you're in heaven where you belong / I was wondering if they had cigarettes in heaven, I don't think so / I still love you, I'll visit your grave every day / Not every day, but I'll visit it sometimes if I ever find it".
And... you know what... Borchardt tries to look after Bill too. He cooks Thanksgiving dinner for Bill and washes his clothes, and behind all that bravura he seems like a nice guy. And, maybe off the back of that deep-seated charm, 'American Movie' is a great, fascinating documentary.
Sadly, 'Coven' is terrible... but please don't let that put you off 'American Movie'.