Friday, 30 June 2017

Street Fighter
Dir: Steven E. de Souza
1994
*
Street Fighter was a phenomenon back in the early 90s that I’m not sure kids these days can really appreciate. Not because it’s the best game ever made, but more the way in which we used to play it. I’m talking arcade. Everyone had their spot and the mission was to be the high-scorer at that spot for the rest of time. My spot, or I should say, my arcade machine, was located in the back room of my local independent video rental shop (another thing kids these days probably won’t appreciate). There were three or four machines back there in total, I can’t remember what the others were, but during the summer holidays of 1991, Street Fighter was king. I have no idea how I was able to afford it or how much a go used to cost but I literally spent every day of every week in that little back room. I think I was top of the table twice but not for very long, but I was however, always in the top ten. My name was pretty safe too, with two entries if I recall, giving me the opportunity to excel at fighting as more than one character. Years later, when I got a home console with the game, I was terrible and never managed to get the hang of it – to be honest, it just wasn’t the same. The arcade, the video shop, the smell…. how I miss them. Literally the only thing that got us kids out of the arcade and spending money on something other than gaming back then was the cinema. There was a lot of rubbish out then, nothing really for kids in their early teens - which they were allowed to see legally anyway. So when our favourite video game was suddenly adapted into a big Hollywood action movie it was a no-brainer, we had to go and see, and see it we did. It really was a no-brainer. Street Fighter only ever had a loose story, I felt that the possibilities were fairly endless for a film adaptation, all you needed was a good cast, some great design, attention to detail and loads of great fights. The film had very few of these things. I’ll start with the good, it won’t take long. There were tiny flourishes, blink and you’d miss it details, which were very pleasing to a hardened Street Fighter. The gold statue in Sagat's business parlor (the lady lying on her side) is the same statue that can be seen in Sagat's backdrop in the game, the fresco found in the training room of Bison's base of a tsunami is a reproduction of the stamp found in Honda's stage, on the wall of a bathroom, in the game and when M. Bison is in his podium at the end of the movie you can see that it is controlled by arcade buttons and a joystick – a lovely touch that was appreciated by us fans. My friends at the time were of differing levels of obsession, some were pleased with the variations in costumes, while others were horrified that Guile was wearing his blue tank top/camouflage pants, which was based on his Street Fighter II Turbo variation and Chun-Li was wearing her red lady dragon dress, which was based on her Street Fighter II: Champion(ship) Edition variation. Even at the wise old age of fifteen, I realised that the costumes were the least of the film’s problems. I think the biggest problem I had, apart from the awful story they came up with, was the lack of one-on-one fighting – Street Fighting basically. I wanted to see my favourite characters brawl and fight it out against each other – seeing as that’s what the game is literally all about. A fight between E. Honda and Zangief should have been epic, and while I appreciated the Godzilla homage, it was totally out of place and made very little sense to me – especially as E. Honda was Samoan in the film, rather than Japanese as he is in the game. And why did Zangief turn good? Why was he depicted as being a fool? He was my favourite player goddammit! E. Honda did slap him at one stage but I wanted to see his proper full on ‘Hundred Hand Slap’ attack like in the game. Ryu did a ‘Hadouken’ move early on but didn’t make the noise – so it doesn’t count, he also does his hurricane kick while Vega gives him his rolling stab, but neither are very exciting or convincing. I think Ken did a shoryuken but again, no sound effects mean it doesn’t count. Guile’s flash kicks look nothing like they should and only Bison’s psycho crusher looks like it does in the actual game. I wanted a sonic boom goddammit! They could have at least smashed a car up half way through the movie. I was looking forward to seeing Dhalsim stretch his arms to punch Vega in the face (as I had made him do a thousand times before) but he didn’t. He totally could have, the film was camp and over the top, a few ridiculous special effects would have been a huge improvement and could have made the film something of a cult classic. Dhalsim doesn’t look anything like he does in the game until the end of the movie, in his second-to-last scene his arm is splashed with chemicals, which is clearly referencing (or foreshadowing) his stretching-limbs move which I’m guessing, was intended to appear in the sequel. A fairly arrogant move, assuming a sequel when they’ve put little money of effort into it. Director Steven E. de Souza claimed he was a big fan of the game and blamed many of the film’s restrictions/issues on Capcom – makers of the game and co-financiers of the film. Capcom required that they approved every aspect of the production before it was actioned, but I can’t see them denying certain basics of the game. They did enforce a strict filming schedule and I think this was a big factor on the lack of story, as Souza himself admitted he wrote the script in one night, knowing the Capcom people would be in town the following day. I can’t help but think he must have been a cheap director. Capcom had always wanted Jean-Claude Van Damme as Guile and asked him to be cast. He actually turned down the role of Johnny Cage in Mortal Kombat to do it, which is like jumping a shark only to land in the mouth of a killer whale. After Van Damme was cast and Raúl Juliá was cast as the villain Bison, most of the casting budget had been spent. Van Damme's fee alone took nearly 8 million dollars of the film's 35 million dollar budget. This meant that the majority of other parts had to go to little-known or unknown actors. Kylie Minogue was cast as Cammy as a result of the Australian Actors' Guild wanting Souza to hire an Australian actor. By the time he received the request the only part not cast was that of Cammy. De Souza first learned of Minogue from her cover photo on a "World's 30 Most Beautiful People" edition of Who magazine. Japanese actor Kenya Sawada appeared in the film as a part of a promotional contract with Capcom, it was all about the money at the end of the day. The MPAA gave the first submitted cut of the film an R classification which was unacceptably high for Capcom, who had stated from the start that it should be a PG-13 film. I would love to see all the scenes cut from the original movie, it’s probably a much better film with them but we’ll never know. There is no getting around the fact, Street Fighter the movie is awful. The only wonderful thing about the whole film is Raul Julia. Julia, who knew he was terminally ill with cancer, asked his young kids what his last movie should be. He wanted to leave them with something, a film and a performance for them, and they chose Street Fighter. Bloody kids. Of course Julia honoured his promise and he gave it his all, even though it was clear he was in pain and weak. His performance is spot on, it’s just sad that this was to be the great actor’s last film. His brilliant performance didn’t really help the film much though, as his brilliance only highlighted the terrible acting of his co-stars. Because his condition wasn’t initially known to Souza, his schedule involving world karate champion Benny Urquidez and stunt coordinator Charlie Picerni didn’t quite go to plan. Picerni took the job with the condition that he would need ample time to train the cast. Initially plans were to shoot Juliá's less intensive scenes first while the rest of the cast would train with Picerni, however upon seeing Juliá, de Souza realized that they could not show him in his current weakened state and was forced to switch the filming around. This meant that the cast would generally be trained only right before their scenes—sometimes only hours ahead. I can forgive the film a lot because of Julia’s selfless act. It’s not often a wonderful story comes from such an abysmal film, so I forgive the absence of Fei Long, I am no longer upset that Fabio was replaced in the role of Vega and I can overlook the final scene and the recreation of the collective character’s ‘Win’ screen. However, I cannot forgive them for what they did to Blanka. What in the name of all that is holy, was that? Unforgivable, and like that, I rate 1994’s Street Fighter with the shameful one star it deserves. Horrible.
Jerkbeast
Dir: Brady Hall
2005
***
I don't know if you can consider yourself lucky if you lived in Seattle during the 1990s, I've never been and I don't know anyone from there, but I know what Public Access TV was and I am jealous of it and declare anyone who ever watched (and therefore could phone in) the late-night Jerkbeast show to be very lucky indeed. What a wonderful 90s thing Public Access TV was, sure anyone can now get themselves on the internet but getting yourself on, and indeed, doing anything you wanted on live TV seems like a distant dream. Having the ability to interact with viewers is next level stuff though and somehow Brady Hall, Calvin Reeder and Nathan Conrad dealt with a deluge of unoriginal and monotonous insults with style, wit and panache. Brady Hall's Jerkbeast, like one of the bigger characters from the Muppet show gone bad, was the king of comebacks, a silver-tongued monster who chewed up hecklers and spat them out effortlessly. When their show ceased to exist, the group focused on other projects but decided years later that Jerkbeast deserved a movie. It's not a polished movie that's for sure, but then it wouldn't really make any sense if it was. This should never have been a high-budget glossy picture, they came from Public Access TV and the quality of the film should reflect it, and reflect it it does. While Jerkbeast is in the film and is a main character, it isn't really about him - he needed to be the title though, because frankly without him, it's nothing. The film itself is about three guys; Jerkbeast who is a giant angry red thing, Sweet Benny who is like a child star of the 50s gone bad and Preston who likes smashing bunny rabbits with a hammer. The three meet and decide to form a band. The band gets popular after the release of their debut song 'Looks like Chocolate, tastes like sh*t' but poor representation and several changes of the band’s name lead to a succession of problems. In the end they decide on the name 'Steaming Wolf Penis' but by then it's too late, they've been fleeced and the age old story of a good band being destroyed by a big corporate music company plays out the way it always does. However, the band don't get back together in the film but they did play quite a few gigs in real life. They played a few gigs in the UK as part of a promotional tour they were doing for the Videosyncratic release of the film in the mid-00s, I was a couple of years late to the party and am still left with regret that I missed them. Everything about the film is of poor quality apart from the script and the performances, which are brilliant. Jerkbeast has to be one of the best characters ever to be committed to celluloid, there was nothing out there like him before and never will be again. It's about as cult as it gets, a homemade film that is genuinely worth watching, that seems to be enjoyed by everyone who stumbles across it.

Thursday, 29 June 2017

Baby Driver
Dir: Edgar Wright
2017
****
After Edgar Wright walked from Ant-Man, a project he'd put a lot of heart and soul into, he needed to come back with some special and something he could get passionate about, so he went back to an idea he had back in 1994. The idea - of a get away driver who was obsessed with music - was actually realised in a music video he made for the British re-mix electronic beat masters Mint Royale back in 2003. The video for 'Blue Song' stared Noel Fielding as the music obsessed driver and his Mighty Boosh co-star Julian Barratt and Wright regulars Nick Frost and Michael Smiley as his bank-robbing passengers. During the heist (which we never see) Fielding listens, dances and performs in time to the music in the corner of a multi-story car park. It's a great little video, especially if you like contemporary British comedy. The intro to 2017's Baby Driver is essentially that video all over again, with Ansel Elgort replacing Noel Fielding and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion replacing Mint Royale. I'll be honest, I didn't like this intro scene at all. It looked like a cheap and nasty remake of the old music video - with better music granted - but unconvincing and utterly charmless. Thankfully, it got much better very quickly. Wright has built on his original idea rather well, and I thoroughly enjoyed Baby Driver from (just after the) start until finish. However, the concept that has been much hyped, of the film essentially being one long music video, keeping in time with the constant soundtrack, isn't quite accurate. There are wonderful flourishes of action following the beat of whatever song is playing at the time, but it's hardly a constant thing, or even much of a concept. Nor is it something particularly original. I like it, but I feel the film was sold on a quirk that isn't the whole film, I feel it undersells what is a perfectly good high-octane crime thriller romance. Still, that's a pre-production marketing thing, the music-heavy themed action works very well in the film and is, thankfully, never overdone as I'd worried might be the case. So the concept isn't really original and the story certainly isn't either, but this isn't a problem, as the story is told slightly differently than one might expect and it is told very well. There is nothing new about bank robberies or the age old tale of a nice guy involved crime, sometimes against his will, who wants out, after one last heist (that goes terribly wrong), to be with the girl he loves. The story has been told with unique twists since the beginning of cinema, Baby Driver goes back to basics in many respects, but the story is a familiar one and has all the same cliches - it's just that here they are updated. This is not criticism though, as I feel Wright has totally understood and immersed himself in the genre and has improved on each element. The romantic side of the story is perfect, and also doubled. Baby meets Debora (Lily James) working as a waitress in a classical American Diner - the spark is there from the very beginning and it only gets brighter as the film goes on. In contrast, you also have Buddy and Darling (John Hamm and Eiza González), the classic True Romance couple we've all seen many times before but with just enough of a Bonny and Clyde essence about them for them to still be bad guys. They are a cynical version of Clarence and Alabama, had they gone broke after walking into the sunset at the end of True Romance. Both couples are integral to the overall feel of the film, Wright is basically taking the classic crime couple, splitting the cliche into two and updating both. He does exactly the same with the two main bad guys. Kevin Spacey plays the film's crime King-Pin, the reason Baby can't get out of the crime syndicate and Jamie Foxx plays the gangster on the rise to power who doesn't like or understand Baby's style. Each character's conclusion comes as a refreshing surprise, Baby Driver follows all crime thriller formulas while re-writing them completely. I would say it works 98% of the time, with only a couple of cartoonish scenes keeping it from being the full 100. Apart from a couple of overlong scenes (I'm afraid Wright does have an issue with editing) I loved everything about it but it is missing something important. It doesn't have that one important scene that makes it iconic. Sure, it has lots of great scenes, a couple of unexpected ones that thrilled me to the core but nothing that will ever elevate it to cult status, which is a terrible shame and a bit of missed opportunity. The script is ace, the cinematography brilliant (thanks to the great Bill Pope) and the direction, concept and acting all of the highest quality. It just doesn't have that scene people will be talking about for years, that scene that gets spoofed by The Wayan brothers or mocked in a Jason Friedberg/Aaron Seltzer movie. I don't think Baby Driver will ever have a cool alternative movie poster made of it, it's not the next Pulp Fiction or indeed, the next True Romance. I sound like I'm hating on it but I'm really not, what I'm trying to say is that it is in fact only a couple of tweaks away from being something of a modern masterpiece. There is certainly a lot more to it than you might expect and a lot more going on than the casual viewer might realize. I have to say I was very impressed with Ansel Elgort who I have thus far overlooked and Lily James is certainly going places fast, the role was originally meant for Emma Stone, and I'm sure she would have been good in it, but I'm glad James got it and she certainly gives it her all. Kevin Spacey is perfect in his role and I think more suited to it than Michael Douglas who was approached originally. I liked this version of Jon Hamm very much, he and Eiza González sizzle and Jamie Foxx makes for quite the effective and unpredictable bad guy.  It was also nice to see Flea in a small cameo appearance, his filmography is quite varied now as it is impressive. I'm quite excited about Edgar Wright's career now that all the Ant-Man upset is over, to be fair, there are many people who could have made Ant-Man as it was, but not many people who could have made Baby Driver the success it is.

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

American Pastoral
Dir: Ewan McGregor
2016
****
Ewan McGregor’s directional debut is incredibly impressive – visually, but I think the film misses the mark somewhat in terms of adaptation. Philip Roth’s novel, released in 1997, explores the domestic, social and political turmoil of the 1960s during the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson, which Roth describes as a manifestation of the "indigenous American berserk”. The glaring problem in adapting the novel is the narrative. The story itself is told by frequent Roth alter ego Nathan Zuckerman, whose narration and discovery of the story works brilliantly in the book, but feels somewhat redundant in the film. The novel alludes extensively to the social upheavals of the late 1960s and early 1970s. It refers to the 1967 Newark riots, the Watergate scandal, the sexual revolution and Deep Throat, the code name of the secret source in the Watergate scandal and the title of a 1972 pornographic film. In the novel's final scene, both the Watergate scandal and the pornographic film are discussed at a dinner party during which the first marriage of "the Swede" begins to unravel when he discovers that his wife is having an affair. The novel also alludes to the rhetoric of revolutionary violence of the radical fringe of the New Left and the Black Panthers, the trial of the leftist African-American activist Angela Davis, and the bombings carried out between 1969 and 1973 by the Weathermen and other radicals opposing the US military intervention in Vietnam. The novel quotes from Frantz Fanon's A Dying Colonialism, which Zuckerman imagines as one of the texts that inspires one of the main characters to act in the way she does. It’s a revealing chapter that brings the concept of the story into the light, but is completely missing from the movie. I have no problem with that, but I would argue that the audience would need a basic understanding of the political and social history of America at the time. There are also several exceptional scenes that don’t have half of the impact they do in the book. It’s an impossible book to adapt in many respects but I understand and respect all the changes that were made and I think it needs to be judged on its own terms, rather than as an adaptation. Fisher Stevens and Philip Noyce both dropped out as directors, so I can’t help but wonder whether hiring McGregor was a bold decision or because they had little choice. Either way, it is an impressive debut, with glorious visuals and rich compositions. It’s very much ‘an actor’s film’, so McGregor practiced with the rest of the cast in closed sessions and the crew was kept basic to keep the relationships between actors realistic and it is very effective. So while it would be useful to know who and what the The Weather Underground Organization (WUO) were, at least you understood the characters, and that is why this film worked for me. Without wanting to give anything away, the film follows a small upper-middle class family of three; Seymour "Swede" Levov, a successful Jewish American businessman and former high school star athlete who has taken on his father’s glove-making factory; his wife Dawn Dwyer, his high school sweetheart and beauty queen Dawn Dwyer; and their young daughter Meredith. Their life seems to be the wholesome ideal of the American family. However, cracks appear as Meredith grows into womanhood. She develops an awkward relationship with her parents that is always at odds with the way she is treated. Family friends and psychologist Sheila (a speech therapist in the novel) suggests Meredith is in awe of her parents to her own detriment. This aspect of the story is only ever touched on and you have to read between the lines so to speak. Meredith’s decline and radicalisation takes shape with the political unrest of the country at that time and reaches a shocking conclusion. Seymour refuses to give up on his daughter but sadly concludes that everyone he knows may seem respectable, but each engages in subversive behaviour and he cannot understand the truth about anyone based upon the conduct they outwardly display. He is forced to see the truth about the chaos and discord rumbling beneath the "American pastoral," which has brought about profound personal and societal changes he no longer can ignore. This comes across clearly but never quite with the panache needed. The ending of the film should be devastating, perhaps more devastating than it was but it was certainly striking, and possibly one of my favourites of the year. So while Ewan McGregor’s direction works and John Romano’s script is suitably different to the novel, one should definitely read the book first but the film is still unique and profound in its own little way and I think it deserves a lot more love than it has so far received.

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Transformers: The Last Knight
Dir: Michael Bay
2017
*
While I’ve had little enthusiasm for the Transformers franchise (the films, not the toys, I loved the toys!) I’ve seemed to be glutton for punishment and always give them a go, hoping that my beloved friends would shine on the big screen, like they did on the floor of my childhood bedroom. Steven Spielberg suggested (and produced) the films after an advertising agency made a special-effects heavy Transformer-style ad for a popular car during the mid-00s. The effects people could clearly make a robot turn into a car, and a car into a robot convincingly, the brand had a huge following and there are always toys to be sold, so it was a no brainer, and even the least nostalgic and most sceptical looked forward to it. I’m the first one to admit that the special effects were always the most important aspect of the films, although the story had to be right. The special effects have been second to none thus far and Transformers: The Last Knight is no exception – for most of the film anyway. I think the stories got more interesting from the third film onwards but unfortunately, everything else got worse. I liked the whole ‘dark side of the moon’ thing in film number 3 and I loved how they got Buzz and Armstrong in as cameos, and I was super excited about seeing my beloved Dinobots in chapter 4 – something I thought I’d never see on the big screen, but both films were awful and suffered from the exact same things that pretty much everyone agrees has been wrong with the series from the very first film. There is a massive quantity/quality issues. The quantity issue is pretty obvious I think – there is just far too much going on at any one time. Transformers: The Last Knight, like the other four films that came before it, goes at a dizzying breakneck speed and feels like a story that an overactive child might think up. Now in some regards that’s quite apt. I remember playing with by Transformers as a child and they would be fighting each other one minute and falling to their doom (the bath) the next without any tangible reason. The magnificence of child’s play – but this isn’t the same thing, and sadly if Transformers: The Last Knight had been made when I was at the peak of my Transformer obsession, I would have been far too young to be allowed to see it. That’s Michael Bay’s first crime. The Transformer films are now all about ticking boxes. Optimus Prime pops up just when he’s needed, check – the film ends with a big floating spaceship that everyone needs to get off before it explodes, check – the good guys get a new side-kick, check, the bad guys get a new ‘wise-talking’ side kick, check, Megatron turns up with upgrades, check, must save the world, planets, cybertron, etc etc. There is nothing new, exciting or particularly memorable about the people, robots or story. I can’t remember much about either film, not least the one I saw just last night. There was never a ‘Knights of the round table’ series of toys, this is an entirely new idea form Akiva Goldsman – one of my least favourite writers in Hollywood today. It’s an intriguing idea for the first couple of minutes but is quickly ruined by Stanley Tucci’s wise-cracking Merlin. This sets the tone and brings me on to the quality issue. Pretty much every scene is ruined by the terrible humour and muddle of overall tone. Nothing every works in unison, in fact, there are a couple of scenes where the film attempt to mock itself, then follows up with a scene that it mocked a few minutes later. It suggests that either the writing is half-hearted, that no one making the film really cares anymore, or that it is being made by the most inept film makers working today – which I don’t think they are. I think they don’t care anymore. Bigger, better, stronger. If you keep repeating those three words to yourself you’ll begin to convince yourself of anything but if Transformers has achieved anything, it is that for once, professional critics and casual audiences agree – there is very little quality at play here. Mark Walberg wants out of the franchise and it looks it in every frame he’s in. Anthony Hopkins, what are you doing? They have the mighty Peter Cullen – a huge fan favourite, but all they ever seem to get him to say is ‘I’m Optimus Prime’ over and over. There is nothing new on offer, other than more of the same, much much more. As a Brit, I found all of the scenes in the UK most troubling. Firstly, if you’re flying from America across the North Atlantic to Stonehenge in the UK (presumably in a straight line, because you’re in a hurry to save the world), you won’t fly over the White Cliffs of Dover – unless you’re terribly lost. London is not next door to Oxford and Oxford University is not in London (it’s in Oxford). Even if you’re no familiar with London, it is clear to see in several scenes that the Transformers are going up and down the same road several times (The Mall opposite Buckingham Palace). It was sad to see four great women of British television subject themselves to one of the worst scenes/scripts of all time in a scene set up around the film’s dismal would-be heroine. Maggie Steed, Sara Stewart and Phoebe Nicholls have made some amazing TV, what on earth are they doing here. I most disappointed in Rebecca Front though, I know money is always useful but I thought she of all people would have been better than that. Actually the whole cast are better than this worthless sensory overload. Cogman, Anthony Hopkins’s robot butler (voiced by Jim Carter) looks superimposed, older actors are made to swear unnaturally, the film’s only woman is slutty (again) and Bumblebee should be a Volks Wagon Beetle damn you Michael Bay!!! Okay, so its a mindless action film - nothing wrong with mindless action films, in fact, I love mindless action films sometimes, just as long as they don't try to do serious at the same time as light-hearted, it just never works. The film makes a point of undermining history and science, and it looks stupid doing so. I like fantasy but seriously, I think I came up with a similar story when I was eight years old. It's a dead franchise, beyond rebooting. It just needs to stop. The difference between Transformers and an Asylum-style rip-off b-movie is money but at least The Asylum are open about what they're doing.

Monday, 26 June 2017

Total Balalaika Show
Dir: Aki Kaurismäki
1994
*****
I found an old music festival poster while sorting through junk in my house the other day. I was amazed at just how many great bands had been playing while I was watching absolute garbage somewhere else at another stage. I didn’t know of many of the great bands there, indeed, many weren’t very big at the time but the list of bands I missed, that I will never be able to see again, is long. The number of gigs I’ve missed, thinking that I was tired and I’d see them next time, is disgustingly long too. Sometimes living in London I forget just how lucky I am to see so many great artists play in venues just down the road from me, I take it for granted. Now, I’ve never been to Helsinki, have no plans to go and certainly didn’t go in 1994 but, if the Leningrad Cowboys announced they were getting back together, resurrecting passed members and playing tomorrow, I’d be on the next plane. Total Balalaika Show is the concert I’d go to if I had a time machine. The concert features the was fictional, now factual band Leningrad Cowboys, who featured in Aki Kaurismäki’s 1989 film Leningrad Cowboys Go America and its sequel, LeningradCowboys Meet Moses. The Cowboys are joined on stage by The Alexandrov Ensemble, the official army choir of the Russian armed forces. The concert took place on 12 June 1993 on Senate Square in Helsinki, Finland. The event drew a crowd of approximately 70,000 people from two nations - Finland and Russia (the fictional band were Russian, the real band were Finnish) - that had been engaged in a state of "peaceful coexistence" during the Cold War. The concert featured an eclectic mix of Western rock and Russian folk music, and folk dancers performing to rock songs. These included:
•        Finlandia
•        Let's Work Together
•        The Volga Boatmen's Song
•        Happy Together
•        Delilah
•        Knockin' on Heaven's Door
•        Oh, Field
•        Kalinka
•        Gimme All Your Lovin'
•        Jewelry Box
•        Sweet Home Alabama
•        Dark Eyes
•        Those Were The Days
Now it’s not much of a movie, but more of a performance. The same could be said for both Leningrad Cowboys Go America and Leningrad Cowboys Meet Moses, you just have to let yourself be engulfed by its satisfyingly surreal style. It feels like the final chapter of a trilogy and the completion of a bigger story; the band finally made it, both fictionally and in real life. It’s my favourite concert movie by far.
Leningrad Cowboys Meet Moses
Dir: Aki Kaurismäki
1994
*****
I absolutely adored Aki Kaurismaki’s 1989 film LeningradCowboys Go America but it was one of the rare films that I would argue didn't need a sequel. However, I'm so glad he made one. Just as you thought the Leningrad Cowboy’s story couldn't get any more surreal, it does, and then some. It could never have the same impact of the first film, so the change in direction was cleverly though out and I would say it's probably funnier. The character of Moses, played by the late great Matti Pellonpää, is inspired. Half the band die of tequila poisoning, Siberia becomes "the Promised Land" and the Statue of Liberty gets her nose stolen. If that's not great writing, I don't know what is. After the events of the first film, the band (now a real band and not just a fictional one), have been enjoying success in Mexico. Enjoying success a little too much in some cases, as half the bad have become tequila alcoholics and half of them have died of excessive drinking. The rest have become fully fledged Mexicans, represented by the fact they have all grown moustaches and wear Ponchos (but still have their pompadours and winklepickers of course). Destitute and down on their luck, the band suddenly receives a telegram requesting their presence at a gig in Coney Island, New York. Igor, now their road manager, smuggles them across the border and gets them to New York, where they discover the sender of the telegram is none other than their ex-manager Vladimir (once again played by the brilliant Matti Pellonpää). Since Vladimir abandoned the band in Mexico at the end of the last film, he had gone through the experience of being re-born and now goes by the name Moses. He explains to them that, for purposes that are to be explained later, they must travel back to the Promised Land (Siberia). They agree and they board a boat back to Europe, just after Moses steals the Statue of Liberty’s nose as a souvenir. Instead of taking the boat, Moses stows away on the wing of a plane which he promptly falls off mid-flight and lands in the sea. He is reunited with the band as he is washed up at precisely the same time and place as their boat is harboured. Meanwhile, a CIA agent has learned of the missing nose and it hot on Moses’s tail. When the band is met by old friends from Serbia, they all take a bus to Brest to play the first of a few gigs in order to make money for travel. The CIA agent soon catches up with them and poses as a record producer but is soon found out and held prisoner by the band. They stop at Frankfurt, Leipzig, the Czech Republic, Poland and Russia and find out their quest has something to do with the birth of a sacred calf but it’s a ridiculous ruse. Eventually the CIA agent also becomes born again and the bad live happily ever after in Siberia, where, people have warmed to them since their departure. There is always a fear that the sequel will tar a memory but not here. Everything that made the original film great is matched and bettered. One wonders whether they might have had another film in them, rather than Total Balalaika Show which is a concert movie. It’s a nonsensical masterpiece with music, my kind of silly and just about the coolest comedy ever made.
Leningrad Cowboys Go America
Dir: Aki Kaurismäki
1989
*****
Leningrad Cowboys Go America is ridiculous, absurd, hilarious, ingenious, rock ‘n’ roll (more punk though in many respects) and just plain brilliant. I love Aki Kaurismäki's films but this is his stand out piece, probably what he’s best known and loved for, and for good reason. It’s a bizarre and somewhat surreal project, the 'cult' film every good director has inside them. I suppose it is a road movie at heart, although it is also about the music and lifestyle of the biggest rock band of all time who haven’t quite made it yet. The Leningrad Cowboys themselves were made up of members of Finnish rock group Sleepy Sleepers and several session musicians for the film but after the film’s success, and because of the fun they had making it, they actually transformed themselves into a real band and enjoyed a fair bit of success. The name of the band comes from the Marx brother’s 1940 film Go West and their costumes (foot-high quiff hairstyles and two metre-long winklepickers) feels like something the comedy group would wear, had they made been alive in the 70s and collaborated with Salvador Dali. The story is simple, the rockabilly surrealists have had no success in Siberia so decide instead to tour America and hope for success there because everyone knows that people will “buy anything” over there. They arrive at the CBGB bar in Manhattan and find an agent who gets them a gig at a wedding in Mexico. So they buy a used 1975 Cadillac Fleetwood 75 Limousine, strap a coffin carrying their frozen band member (who stayed out all night the night before) onto the roof and set off to earn their way through the Deep South, adapting their musical style to suit local tastes at each new location. All the while they are being exploited by their money and food hoarding manager Vladimir (played the utterly brilliant Matti Pellonpää), who has a seemingly unlimited supply of beer in the ice-filled coffin. Meanwhile, Igor, the bands one and only fan from Siberia, who stowed away on the plane, follows the band by his own means of transportation. When he finally catches up with them, they appoint him as their road manager. Along the way the band are reunited with a long-lost cousin (Nicky Tesco) whose singing gives positive reception from audiences and secures him a place in the band. The group are arrested, have their engine stolen and close down a club but finally get to Mexico. The bass player is finally thawed out after being force-fed tequila, Igor joins the band on stage and they become a huge hit in Mexico, entering the music charts in the top 10. American director Jim Jarmusch, a huge Kaurismäki fan, makes a cameo as a used car dealer and blues guitarist Duke Robillard and rockabilly legend Colonel Robert Morris also make appearances and give the film that cool seal of approval. It is a cool film too, because as ridiculous and surreal as it is, it also taps into the whole ‘search for the American dream’ thing, while also working as a visually compelling American road movie and a rock ‘n’ roll biopic. The humour is of the highest quality of silly, it’s impossible not to love the Cowboys or want to actually go to one of their gigs. The musicians aren’t actors but they are performers. There is something very rewarding about watching a bunch of talented and likable people being silly and enjoying themselves. It is a rare example of a film living up to its brilliant title. There is a unique humour in all of Kaurismäki’s films but there is also a level of sadness. Leningrad Cowboys Go America is his one film whereby humour and adventure are the only goals and he manages it effortlessly. All the ingredients are there, this is how you make a raw independent film, it may be the last of its kind and it is certainly the best.

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Rad
Dir: Hal Needham
1986
****
Rad is skill, and if you weren’t a child of the 80s then you should know, skill is rad. Now you may ask, as absolutely no one did in 1986, why the world would need another BMX film when 1983’s BMX Bandits is so unbeatably awesome. It’s a good question, but I would argue that the world coped rather well with having Beat Street and Breakin’ exist as the same time, and also the world is stupid anyway, just shut up and watch this awesome film. I’m not sure a single-worded film title has ever described itself so accurately before or since. BMX Bandits is awesome but it’s a very different film, the BMX riders have a mission, the BMX is their mode of transport and their tricks merely assist them in achieving something unrelated to cycling. Rad on the other hand celebrates what was a subculture that was far from mainstream. BMX bikers were pesky talentless kids to most adults, Rad explained that there was much more to it than that. You have to bear in mind, the X Games didn’t exist and wouldn’t be created for another nine years. The film is about a seventeen year old small town kid called Cru. Cru works hard at school and has two jobs, one working at a local café and the other working a paper round. Everyone likes him and he’s a very decent chap. He’s also a BMX nut and spends most of his life sitting on a saddle than standing on his own two feet. When Cru’s local town endorses the local construction (ha!) of a track and event called ‘Helltrack’, riders from all over the country flock to compete. It’s never clear why this town in particular is chosen as its terrain can’t be that different to that of many other towns but these are minor details. Duke Best, president of The Federation of American Bicyclists and owner of Mongoose bicycles, secures the deal with the city department using what seems like underhand methods (again, not sure why) and sets the price money at $100, as well as fame and a brand new Chevrolet Corvette. He soon becomes annoyed by the presence of young Cru and does everything he can to prevent him from entering the race (again, for no real apparent reason). Cru qualifies but is told that due to a last minute rule change, cannot compete due to a lack of sponsor. His seven year old sister comes up with the idea to start a t-shirt company and essentially sponsor themselves and when told that the sponsoring company must be worth $50,000 at least, the townsfolk give them money in order to help out their local lad. I’m not sure the business side of the story adds up but again, these are just minor details. However, Cru doesn’t just have to face greedy business owners, fiercely competitive cyclists and angry old people in general, no, he’s got to face his mother (played by Talia Shire) too, a dreaded thing in the 1980s. Talia Shire (Adriiiiiiiaaaaaaaan) was a pretty big name in 1986, quite a coup for such a small production. Turns out she’s quite a push over and understands that he can take his SATs (which take place on the same day as Helltrack) six months later, in the remote chance he won’t be a multi-millionaire BMX superstar by then. Thanks Mum. Another cliché avoided is the will they/won’t they romance. Cru meets Christian Hollings, a BMX rider/trick artist who has been told by her sponsors to attend the event and look pretty (but not enter), and the pair soon hit it off romantically. They don’t split up, they don’t argue, they listen to each other and never fly off the handle with each other. Unheard of, even in today’s romances. Indeed, their big shared scene is at the beginning of the film, rather than at the end, at for my money it gives Dirty Dancing a run for its money. The pair attend a youth disco (even though both actors were around 23 at the time) and out-dance the other cyclists (who borrowed their costumes from the cult sci-fi TV show V – no, seriously, they did) by dancing on their BMXs. It’s like Flashdance, Dirty dancing and Footloose all rolled into one, except with bikes and you never see their feet (but I’m sure they were really cycling). The script really isn’t that bad either. The climax of the film, the Helltrack race itself, was filmed close to winter, so leaves were painted green and the cast wore summer clothes in cold weather and made it look like summer. That’s passion. That’s BMX passion. It looks cheap at times, it was clearly made on a small budget and not all of the actors could act (in the classical sense) and basically it shouldn’t have worked. There are probably quite a few idiots that will tell you it didn’t work but that is why they are idiots. It’s a beautiful bit of nostalgia, the critics hated it but the audience loved it. It’s got everything you could want and it explored something new, a subculture that Hollywood still hasn’t touched. It’s called Rad because it is rad, although it’s original title was ‘Balls Out’, but it still would have been rad had they had gone with it, they would have just attracted a different audience is all. The soundtrack is also of the highest awesomenessness.

“God, what I wouldn't give to go ass-sliding with you right now.”
Microcosmos
Dir: Claude Nuridsany, Marie Pérennou
1996
*****
Microcosmos, or Microcosmos: People of the Grass, as it is delightfully known as in France, is a stunning look at the world of insects and other small invertebrates. Their world seems tiny to us but directors Claude Nuridsany and Marie Pérennou prove that there is much more to it and what is happening around our feet is far from small. It’s hard not to be utterly transfixed by the detail, the colour and the behaviour of the creatures featured, but be aware, this is not a nature documentary as you’d expect from the likes of David Attenborough, no, this is all about the visuals, and a little about the technology. My first thought after watching Microcosmos was that it must have been an awfully painstaking film to make but now I’ve given it some thought I’m not so sure. Firstly, it should be viewed as a record of behaviour and interaction, rather than an analysis or education in the classical sense. If you were the sort of kid that caught bugs in a jar and watched them then this is for you (if you were the sort of kid that caught bugs and found original ways in which to kill them, this film will make you feel sick and so you should). It is purely observational. While patience was indeed required (it took three years to complete) it was a very different process to that of your average nature documentary. Firstly, not all of the insects were in their natural environment. Situations were controlled, the bugs were always in front of the camera, they didn’t have to sit in the middle of a reservation, indeed, they probably didn’t have to sit anywhere, the insects took care of the footage and the incredible cameras and natures wonder took control of the cinematography, so the all that was left was the waiting and, I imagine, a mountain of editing. The background, angles and control of the imagery makes Microcosmos what it is; a nature documentary with a very different approach and a very different purpose. I can’t pretend it isn’t frustrating not knowing quite why the bugs are behaving in the way that they are but at the same time it does kind of grab you and wash over you in a way that most nature documentaries don’t. Indeed, since Microcosmos was released in 1996, TV nature documentaries include far more dreamlike sequences with little or no narration that allows the viewer to just appreciate nature without interruption. Sometimes it is nice to enjoy something without necessarily understanding it.
Narrated by Jacques Perrin in the original French version and Kristin Scott Thomas in the English version, the words often seem unimportant, but of course that’s always going to be down to personal preference. Much of the footage has been used by advertising agencies (a popular chocolate bar that asks the public to ‘take a break’ on British television if I remember correctly) and music videos, such as "You Don't Love Me (Like You Used to Do)" by The Philosopher Kings). I feel this cheapens the film somewhat but after three years and all that editing it is probably fair enough to want to make a bit of extra cash. Those cameras must have been expensive after all.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Keeping Up with the Joneses
Dir: Greg Mottola
2016
**
2016’s Keeping Up with the Joneses almost warns you what to expect in the title – a re-vamped idea, that no one asked for, is hard to get enthusiastic about and isn’t actually all that re-vamped anyway. The fact that Greg Mottola is the director may have attracted some to the film, but then the sort of people who know who he is would probably also know who writer Michael LeSieur is, and would become far less attracted pretty quickly. LeSieur hasn’t written many films to date, his debut You, Me and Dupree is horrible but his 2009 film The Maiden Heist was actually rather nice, but needed drastic changes made to it. Keeping Up with the Joneses has, rather frustratingly, the exact same problems. The cast is likable, really likable, Zach Galifianakis is delightful in this toned-down version of his usual persona and Jon Hamm has a twinkle in his eye, in a genre he’s not exactly known for. Isla Fisher’s comic abilities have matured greatly, particularly her physical comedy and Gal Gadot has loads more character here than she has had in previous films – although she’s got to be careful she doesn’t go for every film that sees her in a state of undress, she’s beautiful for sure, but I think she’s better than that and has way more to give. The ‘spy next door’ story line is old and has never been that great, so the film makers really needed to give the audience something new – which they don’t. However, they do it well and as action comedies go, it is full of action and has moments of great comedy. The comedy comes more from the script, rather than the physical though, with many of the comedy stunts falling flat. We knew someone would get bitten the moment the snake was revealed, we knew the first attempt of smashing through a window wouldn’t work and we knew that the awkward sex scene would lead to something disastrous etc. And must every mainstream comedy have a Ken Jeong/Mr. Chow Chinese stereotype in it? It was nice to see Patton Oswalt pop up as the film’s unexpected villain but he, and his humour, were ultimately wasted. The story tries to make a big deal about each character’s emotional traits but doesn’t really develop into anything, Galifianakis’s character is in HR and is good at communication but the other three leads don’t really have anything more to offer than ‘Man spy’, ‘Woman spy’ and ‘Wife’. To be honest though, there is no character definition whatsoever, Galifianakis is a mix of previous characters he’s played, Hamm is Mad Men, Gadot is Fast & Furious and Fisher is, I’m afraid, still Borat’s pretty wife. I mean disrespect to the actors, like I said, they are well cast as they are all hugely likable, but their characters have barely been written. That’s the film in a nutshell, likable but with no substance or anything. I’m the sort of person who always goes for the same flavour milkshake, the same flavour ice-cream and the same type of curry. I’m a creature of habit and I have a routine and there is nothing wrong with that. However, I will never read the same book twice, I will never go to the same exhibition twice and I would never take the same picture twice. Keeping Up with the Joneses, is I’m afraid, for those that know what they like, know what they want and have no interest in the new or different. The sort of people who laugh when told something is funny, who obey the supermarket and let others choose their preferences. I really didn’t mind it, I am half of what I described I admit, but if you’re going to drive a road well-travelled, at least do it in a different car, at a different speed, with the windows open and a different radio station playing through the speakers!
Gates of Heaven
Dir: Errol Morris
1978
*****
Errol Morris's debut documentary film Gates of Heaven is now infamous and widely celebrated. It started Morris's fascination with eccentrics and helped him develop a certain style that, although influenced by his friend and would-be-mentor Werner Herzog, is very much his signature style. It's a style that has been imitated ever since, particularly on TV, but never as successfully, although Nick Bloomfield owes the film and Morris much thanks. The film is a series of talking-head interviews, each beautifully framed and static throughout. Morris is never heard asking questions and he lets the camera keep rolling as the interviewee keeps talking. Nothing is forced, instead he somehow gets more from the people he speaks to, purely by letting them say what they want. There is also nothing deliberate or malicious about his interviews, that is, he never takes advantage of them, when he most certainly could. The first half of the film centres on Floyd "Mac" McClure and his early development of a pet cemetery. Upset at his dog’s death (after accidentally hitting it with his truck) Mac was horrified that the only place to lay his pet to rest was a local rendering plant. Not knowing much about what a rendering plant does, Mac did some research and was horrified at what he found. Mac, being a deeply religious man, wanted to bury his dog as you would a human, and saw the rendering plant as a sort of hell for animals. He found a nice spot of land for his dog and then had the idea of starting a pet burial service for other like-minded animal lovers. Many people took up his offer but Mac did not have a head for business. Morris interviews Mac and interweaves interviews he had with the hip and bolshie head of the local rendering plant. We learn that because of various legal issues, all 450 animals that were eventually buried in Macs plot had to be dug up and moved to Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park, which is run by John "Cal" Harberts and his two sons. The film then concentrates on Cal and his contrasting boys - one with a head for business, the other with aspirations of being a musician. There are some brilliant scenes, especially seeing Dan Harberts play loud guitar on the hill overlooking the animal graves. Some of the pet owners are wonderful to, never made fun of but a wonderful reminder of how people were back then. The film is probably most famous for a bet Morris had with Werner Herzog. In 1978, when the film premiered, Werner Herzog cooked and publicly ate his shoe, an event later incorporated into a short documentary by Les Blank. Herzog had promised to eat his shoe if Morris completed the project, to challenge and encourage Morris, whom Herzog perceived as incapable of following up on the projects he conceived. At the public shoe-eating, Herzog suggested that he hoped the act would serve to encourage anyone having difficulty bringing a project to fruition. Herzog cooked his shoes (the ones he claims to have been wearing when he made the bet) at the Berkeley, California restaurant Chez Panisse, with the help of chef Alice Waters. The shoes were boiled with garlic, herbs, and stock for 5 hours. He is later shown eating one of the shoes before an audience at the premiere of Gates of Heaven at the nearby UC Theater. He did not eat the sole of the shoe, however, explaining that one does not eat the bones of the chicken. It's a classic, up there with the best and most iconic and certainly most influential. I would choose Gates of Heaven over Grey Gardens every day of the week.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

The Girl with All the Gifts
Dir: Colm McCarthy
2016
****
It’s not quite accurate to say that 2016’s The Girl with All the Gifts was adapted from M.R. Carey’s celebrated novel as both film and book were in fact written at the same time. Being a cynic, I thought this would end up being a telling result of someone letting their career and opportunity come before creativity but it isn’t. Carey clearly has his ambitions, the novel and film are both rather different anyway and maybe he just didn’t want someone coming along and messing with his story, better to do it yourself for peace of mind and/or profit. The book looks at the lives of five characters and each chapter is seen through different viewpoints, while the film centres on just one, the girl of the title. The film itself is a zombie thriller at heart, set in a post-apocalyptic dystopia. It nothing the genre hasn’t seen before, although it feels more like a video game rather than a film. Indeed, it is uncomfortably similar to the Play Station 4 game ‘Last of Us’ which also features zombies born of a fungal infection that sprout spore pods. As in the film, the player can move about the crowds of zombies as long as they cover up their smell and are silent at all times. The main character in the game is a young girl, who may hold the secret to the cure, just like the film. It could be coincidence, but the similarity is striking. There are elements of Dawn of the Dead, Bodysnatchers and 28 Days Later but it is done well, is never predictable and is always entertaining. The idea is rather original though, as it centres around the children born from people who were 9 months pregnant at the time of infection. These children literally ate their way out of their mothers and were rounded up and captured by the authorities as their ability to act and think as humans makes them unique and could lead to a cure. The children are imprisoned in an old air base and taught under strict guidelines while also experimented on. Gemma Arterton plays the kid’s school teacher who becomes close and emotionally attached to the school’s brightest child Melanie. She is monitored under the watchful eye of Sgt Eddie Parks (played by Paddy Considine) who runs the unit under strict guidelines and Dr Caroline Caldwell (played by Glenn Close) who experiments and dissects the children in the hope of finding a cure. When the base becomes overrun by zombies, or ‘Hungries’ as they are known here, the four of them, plus a couple of solders, find themselves on the run and looking for shelter. When they learn that the bigger base in London has fallen they realise they’re on their own with Melanie their only source of survival but not in the way they had first imagined. It is fairly standard stuff as far as the zombie genre goes but it makes up for any formulaic familiarity with its rather clever and interpretive ending. The ending could be seen as both a happy one and a sad one, it really does depend on your point of view which makes for quite a unique conclusion. Arterton is convincing, Considine plays the part well and Close is her brilliant self, but it is newcomer Sennia Nanua as Melanie who steals the show. Her performance is perfect, when in all honesty it had to be for the film to have worked. The direction isn’t bad, some of the aerial footage was shot by a second unit in the ghost town of Prypjat, near Chernobyl, in the Ukraine. Colm McCarthy said "I was very interested in post-apocalyptic imagery and urban exploration. We wanted to surprise people rather than have people coming in expecting a studio level film. We sent a micro drone unit to Pripyat, Chernobyl to shoot helicopter footage with Pripyat doubling for urban London." And he succeeded for the best part of the film but here and there, the film suffered from looking a little too CGI, with the colours being often too garish to believe. McCarthy has stated that Gareth Edward’s 2010 film Monsters was a big influence on the film and he even spoke with Edwards before filming to ask his opinion on things. I can’t quite see it myself but he claims Monsters is the films main reference point, so I don’t know if this means he really achieved his goal or not, but I liked it all the same. It’s an easy watch with a pleasantly original ending and a brilliant debut from a future star.