Tuesday, 3 July 2018

8 1/2 (1963)

Films about films is a long established genre, going back at least as far as Buster Keaton. 8 1/2 is Federico Fellini's attempt to explore the difficulties of the creative process. Unfortunately, for me, the film is uninvolving and self indulgent, with inventive and surreal situations overwhelmed by stodgy pretentious dialogue and dull characters.

Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni), is a famous Italian film director (based on Fellini), suffering from writers block while working on a science fiction film. Struggling for ideas and with a messy private life involving his wife and mistress, he retreats into fantasies involving things like being hounded to death by the press or using a whip to keep his imaginary harem at bay.

There is little plot beyond that, which is fine in itself as strong narrative isn't the only way to tell a story. However, there is very little else to go with it. It's a character study of someone who seems to have little character, certainly little to engage the audience with. It's a film about film making, but by the end I felt I knew nothing about his creative process or struggles. Some of the surrealism is funny and surprising, but some feels forced and torpid.

Perhaps I'm missing something, as 8 1/2 has been praised repeatedly and regularly crops up as a favourite of both directors and critics, so it might be worth a second chance, but my main memory is the feeling of joy as the end credits appeared.

Sunday, 29 April 2018

The Funhouse (1981)

While not a classic, The Funhouse takes some of the standard 1980s slasher tropes and mixes them with a unique setting and some occasionally imaginative filmmaking.

The plot sees teenager Amy (Elizabeth Berridge) going on a double date with Buzz (Cooper Huckabee), Richie (Miles Chapin) and Liz (Largo Woodruff) to a carnival. Once there, they ride the rides, eat dodgy looking food and, being teens in a slasher film, smoke pot, and make out. Richie has the bright idea that the four of them should spend the night in the funhouse. What they don't realise is that they are locked in with a deranged carnival employee who has already murdered the fortune teller.

There's plenty of genre clich├ęs, such as nudity drug use, a POV shot from behind a mask (with a creepy - not in a good way - punchline). There's also not a whole lot of action on the first half of the film, with the emphasis on the creepy unwholesome end of the carnival, the freak shows, burlesque dancers and mutant animals. The carnival is almost a character in itself and there is very much an "us and them" attitude of the carnival workers to the outside world, reminiscent of Leatherface and his family in Hooper's earlier classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

The shocks and suspense come once the teens come under threat, with director Tobe Hooper makes the most of disorienting location helped by dizzying editing and photography that plays up the lurid colours in the climactic confrontation. Kudos also to Rick Baker's gooey mutant creature work and John Beal’s orchestral score.

Saturday, 21 April 2018

The Music Box (1932)

One of their best known and best loved Laurel and Hardy films, The Music Box is a perfect example of them taking a simple idea and getting the most from it.

The pair play deliverymen who have one job, which is to get a box containing a player piano to the house of its new owner. Unfortunately, the house in question is at the top of a very long flight of stairs indeed, and they also must contend with obstacles like a vengeful nanny, a bad-tempered policeman and their own blissful incompetence. 

The film is perfectly structured with the repeating joke playing like variations on a theme, and, rather than being unconnected from each other, link together to set up a new hazard for the duo.

The box itself is as sometimes as much of a star as the Stan and Olly, seemingly possessing a sentience that gives their efforts an air of people trying to wrangle a difficult wild animal.

The Music Box went on to win the 1932 Oscar for Best Short and remains a brilliant example of Laurel and Hardy at the height of their powers.

Saturday, 14 April 2018

Are You Being Served? (1977)

Part of the 70s trend for TV sitcoms getting big screen adaptions, Are You Being Served? is a particularly joyless example of the genre.

The Grace Brothers department store is closed for refurbishment, so the staff are sent on a paid holiday to the Spanish resort of Costa Plonka. A misplaced note leads to misunderstandings and the whole thing ends with the hotel being overrun by revolutionary terrorists (the film was made during the transition to democracy era in Spain, after the death of Franco)

The script is based on a stage play and it shows, with nearly the whole film taking place on two locations, the department store and a very obviously studio bound hotel. Nearly thirty interminable minutes is spent at the former, with nothing but corny gags, chatter about the holiday, and a surprise appearance by Derek Griffiths as a wealthy sheik (surprising, not least because all we've heard so far is people saying the store is closed). Things don't improve when we get to Spain with seemingly endless strained farce and more corny gags, only relieved by the novelty of seeing Andrew Sachs playing a Spaniard working in a hotel (although at least this time he's running it).

The characters are one dimensional and cartoonish, and not that interesting, being reduced to the standard seventies sex obsessed sitcom archetypes. The only one who makes any impact is menswear assistant Mr Humphries, and while his mincing camp demeanour may seem dated in the 21st century, his unapologetic refusal to be anything other than himself, especially when telling tales of his social life, is actually quite charming.

Sadly, he is not enough to carry the whole film. On the surface, with the same writers and cast, it has all the ingredients of the TV show, but that is not the case. Apart from a sorely needed laughter track to indicate the arrival of a joke, much of the comedy on the small screen came from the interactions and tensions between the staff and the customers. Here, with only themselves to squabble amongst, the results are painfully unfunny.

Saturday, 31 March 2018

Avenging Force (1986)

Originally conceived by Cannon Films as a sequel to the Chuck Norris kill-fest Invasion USA, Avenging Force re-teams the stars and director of American Ninja 1 and 2. The goofy comic feel of those films is toned down and partly replaced with a darker tone, but end the result is still ridiculous and entertaining.

Ex-secret service agent, Matt Hunter (Michael Dudikoff) comes to the aid of his army buddy and best friend Larry Richards (Steve James), an African-American politician who has become a target for a racist organisation known as the Pentangle. After Larry's family is attacked and Hunter's sister kidnapped, Matt vows to take on the Pentangle one man at a time.

The script is mostly dumb and nonsensical (after a Pentangle massacre at a Mardi Gras parade, the people in the next street carry on as if nothing has happened) and the sadism and racism of the bad guys, who think nothing of shooting women and children in cold blood while throwing the N word around makes this a cruel affair at times.

Although Dudikoff is the star, Steve James steals every scene he is in with his charisma, energy, and obvious martial arts skills.

The climax is a Most Dangerous Game style chase through atmospheric Southern Gothic swamps, replete with lashings of thunder and lightning. Unfortunately, this turns out to not be quite the end, with a 15-minute coda whose sole purpose is to promise a sequel that never happened. Still, overall this is big dumb fun entertainment, that doesn't pretend to be anything else.

Sunday, 18 March 2018

3 Dev Adam (1973)

There is a long and noble tradition in Turkish cinema of churning out knock-offs of Hollywood favourites with little care for subtlety, logic or copyright laws. 3 Dev Adam (which translates as 3 Giant Men) continues this, taking two beloved Marvel characters and a Mexican wrestling legend and crapping on their characters reputations from a great height.

The plot is in there somewhere. It's something to do with antiques or counterfeit US dollars. Spiderman is not your friendly neighbourhood web-slinger.

Instead he is a childish but a psychotic gangster, who gleefully buries a woman up to her neck in sand and then decapitates her with a speedboat propeller. Captain America, who has no shield but does have a girlfriend has come to Turkey with legendary Mexican wrestler Santo to sort Spidey out.

Who cares about the plot though. What you get is 90 minutes of war speed delirious nonsense, with a constant energy that means the film never gets dull. At one point, Spiderman tortures an enemy with a rodent oriented headset straight out of 1984, expect that instead of rats he uses a cute guinea pig. Oh, and Santo's favourite filing system for incriminating documents is to shove them down the front of his spandex trousers. He seems to do this a lot.

Things come to a head at the end where it turns out Spiderman can clone himself, or he has a lot of lookalikes lying around. I forget which. My brain hurts. It's a film where hairy men in stag do superhero costumes beat and grope each other into submission. Sometimes you don't need to over analyse things.

Saturday, 17 March 2018

Chopping Mall (1986)

A slasher film crossbred with Dawn of the Dead and Short Circuit, Chopping Mall is cheap cheesy gory fun.

The Park Plaza Mall has just unveiled a hi-tech security system, consisting of three shiny new robots programmed to disable and apprehend thieves using lasers and grappling hooks. Meanwhile, a gang of teens are having an after-hours party in one of the mall shops where they work. As the evening heats up, a lightning storm hits the mall and damages the computer controlling the robots and the highly armed mechanised menaces now want to bump off anyone who shouldn't be in their mall - which is just about anyone who is there.

Of course, a film like this is going to have a brainless plot (to repeat, the mall plans to stop shoplifters with lasers that can split a person's head open) and paper-thin characters. But director Jim Wynorski also manages to strike the right balance, so the result is something not po-faced and serious, or too irritatingly knowing, just first-class trash viewing.

Wynorksi also chucks in some in-jokes for Corman buffs, from posters for his previous films to cameos from the likes of Dick Miller, Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov.