Friday, 22 September 2017

Starchaser: The Legend of Orin
Dir: Steven Hahn
1985
*****
How did the makers of Starchaser: The Legend of Orin not get sued by George Lucas? Maybe it’s because nearly every element of Star Wars and Indiana Jones were borrowed from a multitude of films, book, comics and pulp fiction stories themselves, so the bearded one let it slip, or maybe he liked it, or maybe he just never saw it. To be fair, not many people did it seems, certainly whenever I bring it up in conversation with other cinephiles there is generally only ever one other person who knows what I’m talking about. However, when you meet that one other person, that’s it, the rest of the night is just the two of you, getting over excited and chatting over each other at a million miles per hour, not only because you’re thrilled to meet someone else that has actually seen what is the best, most forgotten animation ever made, but because they also love it. Everyone who sees Starchaser: The Legend of Orin loves it because it’s just too awesome not to. It borrows aspects of films such as Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Battle Beyond the Stars, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, is clearly influenced by books by Philip K. Dick and Isaac Asimov, and is animated in the popular style of the time. It was also the first animated feature to be shown in 3D. Starchaser was everything you could want from an 80s cartoon. When the robots weren’t scary they were either camp or sexy, just how us kids liked it back then. It featured aliens, cyborgs, robots, a talking spaceship, a ‘chosen one’, an invisible sword, lasers, explosions, lots of escaping from places about to explode as well as the classic get the girl, kill the baddie and save the entire universe plot. Our parents had no idea how adult some of the content was (they still don’t), which also made it a talking point in the school playground. It was Star Wars made in the style of Heavy Metal – an awesome combination with a hint of the cool stuff L. Ron Hubbard wrote without any of his Dianetics nonsense. The main character Orin, a slave minor born into a fabricated underground world where the god Zygon forces people to dig for crystals, looks a cross between Big Trouble in little China’s Jack Burton, Axel Stone from Streets of Rage and any lead guitarist from any 80s rock group. When Orin escapes his underground world he meets a smuggler called Dagg Dibrimi, they save each other’s lives and come stuck with each other for the duration of the film. It is basically Luke Skywalker and Han Solo, although Dagg acts like George Pepard’s Cowboy from Battle Beyond the Stars and looks more like Michael Ironside than Harrison Ford. Dagg’s spaceship is voiced by a robot who moves around the ships console – just like Max in Flight of the Navigator but I should point out that Starchaser came out the year before. The film gets weird very early on but in a really good way. When Orin and Dagg escape from Zygon’s base, they accidently bump into a female admin robot and use her as a shield against the lasers that are shot at them. Once safely on their ship, Dagg reprograms the fembot – who up until that point sounded like Wilma Flintstone – into a sexbot. For some reason the reprogramming has to be done through her backside, which she wiggles around for most of the film. Orin gets Obi-Wan style guidance from a magic firefly when things get tough and Orin soon falls in love with a Princess (who is practically Teela from the animated series of Masters of the Universe) forgetting his girlfriend who literally only got killed hours before in the process. It’s a fast paced story that I’m not sure makes perfect sense but the gang save the day, free the people and Orin, who is discovered to be a Ka-Khan (a Jesus type being), cures the blind and makes them see again. Interestingly a Ka-Khan is a high-honoured priest in the church of scientology, so I wonder whether this was actually an attempt at brainwashing from a young age. None of it is original and yet there is nothing else like it, it’s one of those bizarre little cartoons that made growing up in the 80s so beautiful and helped mould me into the nerd I am today – probably more so than Star Wars did in many respects.

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Kingsman: The Golden Circle
Dir: Matthew Vaughn
2017
****
Kingsman: The Secret Service was a big hit when it came out in 2015. Only those who read Dave Gibbons and Mark Millar’s comic were familiar with the characters and story, so for the mainstream audience it came as something of a surprise. I think people still overlook the creativity of adult non-superhero graphic novels and comic books, many have been made into films but few have really captured the essence of what makes the original so appealing and enjoyable. Matthew Vaughn gets it, he proved as much with 2010’s Kick-Ass, another Mark Millar comic. His only mistake was that he didn’t direct the sequel, not a mistake he was going to repeat with regards to Kingsman. Early reviews of the 2017 sequel were mixed, most stating that the film doesn’t have the same impact of the first film. A tired argument that all sequels of popular films seem to suffer these days. The first film was closer to the original comics but it was our introduction to the secret organisation, with the origin of each character explored. Now that that is out the way, it’s time for a mission and that is what the sequel is. You could say that it is more of the same but I don’t think you can accuse it of being anything but original and entertaining. It is more of the same in the best possible way, that is, the humour, excitement and inventiveness of the first is very much present second time round. While not based on one of the comics in particular it does make sure to keep with repeated themes seen in Gibbons and Millar’s original. The plot wipes away the Kingsman organisation, so the surviving agents have to seek help from their American counterparts; The Statesman, which adds another interesting level to the series. Instead of tailors, the American secret service are Whiskey distillers. Musch like the first film, the cast is big and impressive. Taron Egerton and Mark Strong return, as does Colin Firth, which was a nice surprise, nicer had his return not been shown in the trailer but I guess the producers’ worried people wouldn’t go and see it without him. The Statesman are made up of Jeff Bridges, Channing Tatum, Halle Berry and Pedro Pascal, with the lesser known Pascal stealing the show somewhat. Edward Holcroft returns from the first film as a bad guy and Sophie Cookson, the Swedish Princess whom Eggsy saved (with great reward) from the first film, returns as his girlfriend in what is quite a refreshingly un-James Bond thing to do. However, as much as the film spoofs 007, I could see Julianne Moore as a Bond Villain. Her 1950s Americana obsessed Drug lord Poppy, is a brilliant contemporary baddie. She also wins for coolest secret lair, a 1950’s themed street right called ‘Poppy Land’ in the middle of the Cambodian jungle, complete with hot dog stand, cinema, salon and diner that is clearly influenced by John Ford’s failed Fordlandia. Her secret organisation ‘The Golden Circle’ is tight-knit and anyone not following orders finds themselves thrown in the meat grinder and made into Hamburgers. Keeping with the original comic’s tendency to feature real life celebrities, Poppy kidnaps Elton John for her own amusement. Elton John is a great sport and pretty much steals the show in an exaggerated version of himself. There are elements of the story that may seem a little samey in terms of sequel. The idea of re-building is fairly familiar, The Dark Knight being the most popular and obvious example of recent years. The cynic in me thinks that maybe Colin Firth shouldn’t have returned, his death in the previous film being a quite the bold move that gave the original the edgy impact that made it so successful. The scenes with Eggsy’s mates could have been cut but I quite liked the balance they gave the film, plus it was good to see Thomas Turgoose on the big screen again. Some of the action scenes were a bit too over CGI’ed, not the big stunts that required it but the small intimate fight scenes that really didn’t. I would have liked to have seen more of The Statesman’s get-up but I’m sure that’ll be developed in the next film. Personally, I was more than entertained throughout the entire film. It was consistently funny, never predictable and I could still see Gibbon’s and Millar’s original concept clear as day. As a huge fan of both film and comics, it is a great day when I see the authentic merger of the two. Seriously, a London Black Cab turns into a submarine, Keith Allan (Lily’s Dad) is turned into a Hamburger and Elton John fights with two robot dogs – what’s not to love about that? James Bond spoofs are a dime a dozen, Kingsman actually gives 007 a run for his money and does so with wit, panache and bucket-loads of charm. It would be nice to see Kingsman have a series as long as Bond's but failing that, I'd love to see Millarworld expanded and a few more of the additions of Mark Millars work meet up on film, starting with Kick-Ass vs Kingman of course.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Elle
Dir: Paul Verhoeven
2016
**
Paul Verhoeven’s first film in a decade was celebrated across the board, winning many awards and earning some of the year’s finest reviews. I agree that Isabelle Huppert’s performance is one of the best of 2016 but her performance is about the only thing I liked about it. I’ve not read the 2012 novel Oh… by author Philippe Djian on which the film is based but it too was a critical success. Whether the film is an authentic adaptation I do not know, whether the novel is meant as a post-modern cliché comedy is also unknown. Verhoeven wanted to set the film in Boston but the truth is he couldn’t persuade any American actress to take the lead role. He asked Nicole Kidman, Sharon Stone, Julianne Moore and Diane Lane. He also asked Marion Cotillard and Carice van Houten but they all declined. It seems that not one of them wanted to play a women who is raped but shrugs off the assault, so as not to let it affect her or her ordered life. Verhoeven said later, on several occasions, that he thought Jennifer Jason Leigh was probably the only American actress who could have done the character justice, but he never asked her because he felt the role needed a big name and hers wasn’t quite big enough. He decided that France would be far more accepting of the subject matter and Isabelle Huppert would be just the sort of actor to take the roll by the proverbial horns. So the film was made in France and the question of whether the film is actually some sort of twisted satire was born. Huppert’s character feels like a parody of characters she has played before and Elle (French for ‘She’ or ‘Her’) feels like a piss take of many a great French thriller that has come before. My first reaction was that Verhoeven was making fun of Michael Haneke by making an exaggerated version of one of his films in the style of Brian De Palma. I thought Isabelle Huppert was a good sport for taking part in it, especially after making such dreadful films like Ma Mere. I thought the Robocop director clearly wasn’t done with making cutting satire and good on him. Then I remembered, the dude made Showgirls. The penny dropped, Elle was meant to be a serious film. Critics (paid ones I might add) have described it as "the most empowering "Rape Movie" ever made, a woman’s complicated response to being raped will draw ire from feminists and others, but it’s one of the bravest, most honest and inspiring examinations of the subject ever put onscreen”. One critic called it a "light-hearted rape-revenge story” which makes me wonder whether they are also in on the whole satire thing? Reporting a rape in order to capture the rapist, thus bringing him to justice and preventing him from raping someone else is considered feminism apparently. Letting the rapist get away with it and allowing the possibility that he may attack again, and even rape someone else is ‘empowering’. I’m not sure I’ve seen such a misguided film since…Showgirls. Once you realise the film is serious it becomes something of a grotesque experience. Gaspar Noe’s 2002 film Irreversible shows a brutal rape but goes a long way in exploring the nature surrounding it. It never once treats the situation as anything other than despicable, and something that needs tackling. Elle trivialises rape, it insults women and men and is about as far from intelligent as you can get, while thinking it is the best thing since sliced bread. This isn’t new ground either. At best Elle is a good Giallo film but without the cool sound effects and great visuals. Even now, I think of the scenes involving a computer game character being raped by a satanic octopus thing and I question whether this film isn’t a misguided satire? I may very well be wrong about the film’s intention but it still didn’t work for me and as much as I thought Verhoeven’s direction and Huppert’s performance were good, I think it should damage their careers somewhat. I always congratulate films that push boundaries but this is sensationalist nonsense without anything new or clever to back itself up with. How it has been so widely celebrated is beyond me, maybe it will be one of those few films that I hate and everyone else loves but I do question a society who like this sort of thing, think it’s clever and has something important to say. There are so many people who avoid French films because they think they’re all like this, it’s such a shame when a new one comes out and is the epitome of a bad stereotype and a tasteless one at that. Funny how it is based on a novel titled Oh.... as that was exactly my reaction once it was over.

Moon
Dir: Duncan Jones
2009
*****
Moon was celebrated by critics but didn't do as well with audiences, I'm afraid that the mainstream audience seem to have missed the point with Moon, even though I didn't feel it was ever misleading in its promotion. A sci-fi space-mission, with absolutely no explosions, space-ship chases or evil bug-eyed aliens didn't seem right to many which is frustrating, as Moon - which isn't about any of those things, it's true - is one of the best pieces of theatre committed to film of all time. It's up there with Solaris for sure, albeit a much simpler subject. It's funny, it never feels like it when watching but Moon is one of the greatest monologues ever written, not necessarily because of the script either, but because of the performance. It's a real shame that a film that tackles fundamental questions like the existence of God, the human soul and highlights the frailty of man, the good and the bad of creation and the flaws of the human race can be simply passed off as simply 'too long and too boring'. In my opinion Moon is the perfect film, brilliantly conceived and realised. Sam Rockwell's performance is awesome and Duncan Jones's direction is outstanding, especially considering it's his debut. He could have easily cashed in on his real identity and I'm glad he didn't, he's a genius in his own right, much like his father. Both he and Rockwell have been unforgivably overlooked for their work here but I think time has put this right somewhat and much like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris, it will be regarded as the classic it really is. Although I would like to put an end to the lazy 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris comparisons, they tackle similar subjects and are all set in space but Moon is its own masterwork, it didn't have to exist in space, the idea is timeless and original. It's more like Silent Running and Outland anyway. It's brilliantly written, beautifully directed (with superb cinematography from Gary Shaw) and it has a sublime soundtrack from my favourite film composer Clint Mansell. Snubbed at all the big award ceremonies, just as some of the greatest films are, Moon is one of the best films in its genre and a film people will still watch 100 years from now.
Carry On…Follow That Camel (AKA Follow That Camel, Carry On In The Legion)
Dir: Gerald Thomas
1967 
****
I know that the hard-core Carry On fans were never that fond of Follow That Camel but I always loved it and consider it one of their best. It is the fourteenth in the series and the second (following its predecessor Don’t Lose Your Head) to be produced by Rank Films. Like Don’t Lose Your Head, Follow That Camel was released without the famous ‘Carry On’ prefix. This was supposedly done for legal reasons due to Rank having just changed distributors but some have suggested it was more of an intentional move away from the earlier films. Don’t Lose Your Head was not a great film and I’m in the minority that think Follow That Camel is but it isn’t without its problems. The ‘Carry On’ prefix was brought back for the rest of the series, supposedly becoming legal for them to use again. It was clear that Rank wanted to try and tap into the American market, Sid James was meant to star in the lead role but due to television commitments he had to decline. Many have speculated he was replaced due to suffering a heart attack but his attack came after the filming on Follow That Camel had started. While an early draft of the script was written with Woody Allen in mind, the final film was written for the great Phil Silvers. I can see why fans of the series weren’t happy for a non-Brit who had never been part of the cast taking centre stage but personally I love it. He is brilliant and perfect in the roll. To be fair, he is playing Sgt Bilko, but I adore Sgt Bilko, so had no problem with it. It was wrong of the team to forget their core following but series regulars Kenneth Williams, Jim Dale, Charles Hawtrey, Joan Sims, Peter Butterworth and Bernard Bresslaw were all on top form, even though they weren’t always happy. A good Carry On film is one where the cast are clearly having fun, here I didn’t get that as much, and for good reason. The salary the cast members got for each film was always deemed poor, considering the amount of money the franchise made. Phil Silvers was paid a handsome amount for his time and name, more than any regular player was paid before or after. This went down badly. Jim Dale fell out with both Peter Butterworth and Kenneth Williams, the location scenes took much longer than usual and the desert scenes were delayed due to snow (the Sahara desert scenes were filmed in Camber Sands, Essex during winter). However, the theme – which parodies Beau Geste and Foreign Legion films in general, lent itself brilliantly to the Carry On gang and sense of humour. It didn’t break America but at least it taught the Carry On team behind the camera a thing or two, and the series carried on at it used from there on in and enjoyed a particularly good run for the next couple of years. It also features one of my favourite but disturbing endings of the Carry On films.

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Allied
Dir: Robert Zemeckis
2016
***
Robert Zemeckis’s 2016 romantic spy thriller was something of a pleasant surprise but I can’t help but think the visuals probably didn’t match Steven Knight’s original script. I enjoyed it and was entertained throughout but I’m afraid the film as a whole looked just a little bit too cartoon-like to me. There are some impressive special effects – notably the scenes that featured the bombing of London during the Blitz – but these are somewhat spoiled by some rather clunky bits of background CGI that served very little purpose and were easily avoided. We all know how much Zemeckis likes his special effects/CGI/animation but I think he should have reeled it in a bit for this particular story. Indeed, as much as I like the guy, I think the film would have fared better under the direction of someone else. The story isn’t perfect either it has to be said, I really liked the idea but the story is full of plot holes and much is lost from the film jumping to ‘one year later’. I would argue that the main idea is kept alive though, thanks to its quality and uniqueness but especially thanks to the performances. While Bred Pitt is rather lethargic in his performance, I do get the impression his character was meant to be somewhat detached, so in that sense I think he did a good job. It is however, Marion Cotillard who steals the show, this being very much her film. Her performance keeps you guessing right until the end, which is exactly what the film is about. The chemistry between Pitt and Cotillard works very well, there is a lot exchanged between the two without words, something special that only actors of their calibre are capable of. It is clear that the CGI used in the film is to save money and not shoot everything on location but I believe this stops the film from reaching its full potential and what it clearly wanted to achieve. It is clearly meant to be a tribute to the romantic war films of the 1940 and 1950s, its roots are based on a factual story it has been suggested but it is very obviously trying to be the new Casablanca. It even begins in Casablanca. It’s hard to say if this is an obvious oversight or a genuine act of tribute but either way, it is a million miles away from such greatness. It feels like a good attempt at recreating a classic, which is exactly what it is. I thought the details were very good however, having lived near Hampstead I can say they got that right, I’m not sure if people ever openly took cocaine during 1940s parties, but London looked authentic enough. The supporting characters could have been given a little more development, Pitt’s Wing Commander Max Vatan has a sister for instance played by Lizzy Caplan. She is seen only twice in the film but her persona, lesbianism and demeanour are given full attention and made a point of, to absolutely no avail. It’s as if her part was cut and her character originally meant for greater things. Pitt and Cotillard’s relationship sizzles in the first scenes where they first meet but their chemistry makes less sense years later (minutes later as you watch the film). The passing of time doesn’t really work here, it feels like a great television series sandwiched into a 120 minute feature film. The good in the film is clear and worth watching the film for, but the bad will irritate somewhat and will always make you wish they’d spent just that little extra time fine tuning it – which includes filming on location. 
Wisconsin Death Trip
Dir: James Marsh
1999
**
James Marsh’s 1999 docudrama is not easy viewing. It’s not a documentary in the classic sense, in that it has no narrative and no real story. Based on the 1973 book by Michael Lesy, who was inspired by the photographs of Charles Van Schaick, Wisconsin Death Trip is exactly what the title suggests. The film dramatizes Schaick’s photos while Ian Holm reads out a series of newspaper articles written during a spate of macabre incidents that took place in Black River Falls, Wisconsin in the late 19th century. It’s the sort of thing you might find as part of an art installation in an art gallery, rather than in a cinema. I like the idea on paper, it is chilling, depressing and explores the very depths of misery. My kind of film for sure. It just became incredibly uncomfortable to watch after minutes. The film’s run time is a torturous 76 minutes, and even though the imagery is striking, Ian Holms voice lovely and DJ Shadow’s music effective, it’s still a million miles away from entertaining. It is, essentially, someone reading out a list to a collection of very similar looking photographs. It is very slow, unapologetically monotonous and utterly unrelenting. You get the picture after a few minutes but Marsh is intent on drilling the message into the audience, repeating it over and over until it sticks. The problem I found was that it had the opposite effect. What I think was meant to be hypnotic, became almost invisible, like TV snow (visual white noise). Indeed, it was as if I was told to watch TV snow for hours on end with the promise that I would eventually see something. I have an open mind, Wisconsin Death Trip works best for those with a creative one, but I think even the most creative individual would struggle, especially as it is itself, fairly uncreative. I found it mind numbing if I’m going to be brutal about it but I will always congratulate a film maker on making something original. Wisconsin Death Trip is certainly a one off, there is no other film like it and that is to James Marsh’s credit, but it is probably for the best. Marsh has gone on to direct some of my favorite documentaries of recent years, good on him for trying new things - without wanting to sound condescending.