Archive for Lifeforce

Dismember the Alamo

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 27, 2015 by dcairns

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I had been warned by Paul Duane, who knows Texas, that TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2 was pretty fucked up. He wasn’t wrong.

The first film managed to mingle a kind of very unpleasant black comedy with a grotesque charnel-house realism, avoiding extreme gore but lingering on extreme emotional distress. For the sequel, original director Tobe Hooper and screenwriter L.M. Kir Carson, who was coming off of Jim McBride’s BREATHLESS and Wim Wenders’ PARIS, TEXAS (on which he has an odd crediting for “adapting” Sam Shepherd’s original screenplay) evidently decided to abandon any taste of realism and pump up everything else until it burst. As a kind of Rabelaisian revulsion response to the concept of horror movies, meat, the human body and the state of Texas and the country of America, it’s pretty strong stuff.

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Hooper’s enthusiasm for cruelty and violence and terror and the gross seems to come at the expense of any interest in the non-mayhem scenes, which is a shame — final girl Caroline Williams and the recently career-resurrected Dennis Hopper are good company, but many of the straight acting scenes seem like rehearsals. Once some suspense kicks in — a long, creepy intimidation scene in a tiny radio station — Hooper’s skills with the camera and with pacing come to the rescue, and though there are continual flaws of logic and basic credibility, the pace never flags from then on.

Cannon Films evidently showered largesse — and offal — on the production, allowing it to employ Tom Savini for grue and mummification effects, and to build a spectacular, impossible set, Texas Battle Land, a decaying theme park partially converted into an abattoir by the Sawney Bean-inspired Sawyer family. Among the bizarre murals and sculptures is a huge hand with fringed sleeve, clutching a bowie-knife, apparently breaking through the floor. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s kind of wonderful.

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The active Sawyers this time are Bubba, AKA Leatherface, now played by Bill Johnson, who proves himself a nimble physical comedian, contrasting his physical bulk with small, apologetic gestures; Chop-Top, played with gusto by Bill Mosely, a Viet Nam vet with a steel plate in his skull, which he continually picks at with a heated coat hanger, eating the shreds of himself he tears away; and the paterfamilias, Jim Siedow, back from the first film. He can’t exactly act, though he is certainly a striking performer. This movie tends to showcase his weaknesses more than the first film, giving him more dialogue, more emotions, and more screen-time. He isn’t nuanced, but he IS enthusiastic. His forced maniacal laugh, which he throws in even when his character is supposed to be angry, adds to the sense of nervous strain on the whole enterprise, so it’s in its clumsy way pretty effective.

More bad stuff: Hooper co-composed the score, and he’s no John Carpenter. Fragments of Bernard Herrmann served up with synths — genuinely horrible, and not in a good way.

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But the film has a demented vigour, a go-for-broke aggression born either of Hooper’s sheer ignorance about what is acceptable behaviour in a mainstream horror movie (chainsaw masturbation? Really?) or his suicidal urge to career-immolate as penance for LIFEFORCE and INVADERS FROM MARS (which are still ridiculously enjoyable movies). The addition of hot-pink disco lighting doesn’t lessen the impact, it makes everything feel sicker. It’s like eating a barbecue under coloured lighting while death metal plays. It’s a film so full of bad-taste energy that it can casually throw out the suggestion of a Viet Nam War theme park and not bother to elaborate.

“Was it wrong of me to enjoy that?” asked Fiona. It’s wrong of all of us!

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Dyer Straits

Posted in FILM, Television, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 11, 2013 by dcairns

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I was very excited about Ray Cooney’s return to the cinema. The west end farceur made two films, or “films,” in the seventies, both based on his stage hits. I have shown several of them to friends. I don’t see most of those friends much now, strangely.

Those seventies classics are NOT NOW DARLING (1973) and NOT NOW COMRADE (1976) — just from those titles you can see that Mr. Cooney was empire-building, attempting to carve out a niche in the British comedy market somewhere between the CARRY ON films and the CONFESSIONS films. Just from the years of production and the fact that there’s only two of them, you can see that he didn’t succeed. I suppose nobody in those days realized that the saucy British comedy was on the way out, killed off by TV, which could replicate most of the same sauciness and be watched free of shame behind drawn curtains at home, and by the intrinsic rottenness of most of the films — those Robin Askwith movies are like one very long public service film promoting chemical castration.

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Cooney’s films don’t deserved to be considered with the very bleakest of the sex farces (along with the CONFESSIONS movies I’d include death-gasps like THE AMOROUS MILKMAN and I’M NOT FEELING MYSELF TONIGHT and of course the jaw-dropping, COME PLAY WITH ME, the release of which was equivalent to the British film industry taping a sign to its forehead reading SHOOT ME), films which I’m convinced were part of a government conspiracy to stop the working classes from breeding by depressing and disgusting them to the point of sterilisation, a scheme I have decided was almost certainly called Operation Prolewipe. But Cooney is still guilty of minor crimes against comedy, humanity, and cinema.

NOT NOW DARLING stars Leslie Phillips, who certainly has cinematic comedy chops, along with Cooney himself, who sadly doesn’t. Whatever abilities he brings to the stage as actor, writer and director simply don’t transmit to film — all his intended laughs are echoing endlessly in some twilight zone wormhole of mistimed punchlines and ill-conceived innuendo, where the translucent spectre of Arthur Askey holds illimitable dominion over all. Plot involves Phillips as a furrier trying to arrange a free fur coat for his girlfriend without his wife finding out. Julie Ege is the girlfriend, Moira Lister the wife, and a barely-clad Barbara Windsor is also included without fair warning or apology. As I recall, the film was shot multi-camera using some live vision-mixing system that saved time and money and made everything look a bit murky. So you get all the awkwardness of an under-rehearsed long take with all the awkward cutting of a live broadcast. And an insulting approach to the audience that panders by serving up nudity for inane non-reasons. “Here, you like tits, I’ve heard — let me shove this representative pair into your eyeballs.”

Cooney is apparently a nice man, but his films kind of make me want to hate him. I will resist the urge.

I don’t remember NOT NOW COMRADE so much, but it’s a “satirical” take on the cold war with defections and stripper’s pasties. Roy Kinnear is the token talented one, managing to wring just one laugh from the material, and there’s one moment of accidental genius when the cheap set is deserted by the cast, there’s an Ozu-like moment of emptiness, and then the dwarfish Don Estelle wanders myopically into frame in a loud check suit, hesitates a moment, and wanders off. Surreal and kind of beautiful, but entirely ruined when he turns up again later and turns out to have something to do with the plot.

These two movies are really among the worst things that have ever happened to British cinema, even if they’re not as ugly as the full-frontal Askwith stuff. So I was, as I said earlier, excited about RUN FOR YOUR WIFE, and the film’s reception, taking £747 at the UK box office, led me to believe that Cooney had lost none of his power to appall and stultify.

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In fact, not only has age not withered him, it has in some respects enhanced his capabilities. The film, like the play, tells the sorry tale of a London cabby with two wives who don’t know about each other. Concussed when trying to stop a mugging (some superannuated youths trying to steal a handbag from a bag lady played by Judi Dench — the first of many astonishing cameos — but why do they think this homeless lady is worth robbing?) he loses track of his careful schedule which allows him to (somehow) juggle two households. With hilarious consequences.

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One can see why Cliff opted for a disguise, considering the company he’s in.

Stuffing the film with cameos, Cooney contrives to include cast members from several decades’ worth of stage productions of this inexplicable hit, making it a bit like Alain Resnais’s YOU AIN’T SEEN NOTHING YET!, released at around the same time to slightly more acclaim. Although I think Cooney was probably aiming for something more like LE TESTAMENT D’ORPHEE, a dreamlike reiteration of all his artistic obsessions, in which dropped trousers and squashed cakes recur like leitmotifs.

Cooney is joined in the director’s chair by one John Luton, presumably brought in to enhance the technical side of things, and bringing his experience cutting a Lindsay Shonteff James Bond rip-off to the table. Filming farce is notoriously difficult — let’s be fair, here — and one thing that film history seems to tell us is that the longer the takes can be, the better it works. The greatest cinematic farce on record is Renoir’s THE RULES OF THE GAME (although it’s also much more than that), and it achieves some of its staggering effects by holding its shots even as the action seems to overflow them — we’re as breathless as the camera, which can’t seem to quite capture all the action. Cooney and Luton boldly jettison all this accumulated wisdom and set about chopping every scene into nuggets a couple of seconds long, so that nothing breathes and no honest interaction between players is ever captured.

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This might, however, be a mercy, as the actors on display include Danny Dyer (whose involvement is seemingly, somehow, enough to get any film made, whether it be repellent art film, repellent gangster film or repellent comedy); television presenter Denise Van Outen; pop singer (Girls Aloud) Sarah Harding… there are others with far more comedy experience hanging around to back them up, but by some strange bad movie alchemy, they’re even worse. Christopher Biggins and Lionel Blair play homosexuals unconvincingly — I tend to blame the writing here — and Neil Morrissey is, from what one can discern through the blipvert cutting, terribly poor. Honorable mention to the two police inspectors, Nicholas le Prevost and especially Ben Cartwright, who manage not to make you either angry or embarrassed on their behalf.

It’s best, really, not to watch the film as a comedy, but as a kind of endurance test horror film, like FUNNY GAMES or SALO. The sets are retina-scouring in their vibrancy, and one”comic climax” involves a flood of red dye that transforms half the cast into bystanders from BRAIN DEAD. The gurning faces in close-up, the chocolate cake smeared on Neil Morrissey’s buttocks, the endless cameos by elderly and half-forgotten comics (making this not only the PARTING SHOTS of the twenty-first century, but the WON TON TON, THE DOG WHO SAVED HOLLYWOOD)… There’s also the strange subplot about the breakdown of civilisation…

I should explain: since Cooney’s play was written decades ago, the plot, to work, must be protected from modern technology, which would ruin it. So mobile phones are mislaid, the internet is down, sat nav is absent, and lines of dialogue establishing this are dropped in here and there, giving the impression of a London beset by some terrible technological calamity. It’s like a version of LIFEFORCE where the space vampire apocalypse hasn’t been noticed because everybody’s trousers are falling down.

In fact, the late, lovely Richard Briers appeared in both this movie and COCKNEYS VS ZOMBIES so close together that it’s not easy to be sure which was actually his final film. But my apocalyptic subtext reading of WIFE suggests that they’re actually the same movie anyway.

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Lionel Blair was in A HARD DAY’S NIGHT. Fact.

Kicking a film when it’s down is a critic’s favourite sport, of course. And there’s nothing really to be said in favour of such brutality. In this rare case, however, I would argue that my appraisal might actually make some people want to rent the film, as I did, to see how amazingly strange it could possibly be. Such fools will not be disappointed.

Remember, Remember

Posted in Comics, FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , on November 5, 2013 by dcairns

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Re-watching V FOR VENDETTA to get in the mood for Government Detonation Day. My, the dialogue is worse than I remember it. I haven’t seen a London as unconvincing as this since LIFEFORCE, which the movie somehow resembles. An odd thing — while Americans say the word “bollocks” quite charmingly, with just a hint of becoming self-consciousness, and British actors generally say it quite effectively, when American writers put “bollocks” into British mouths, it doesn’t come out right.

So for the first hour I was kind of wondering why I’d given this film kind of a pass at the time. True, its heart is in the right place, more or less — it’s still probably the most gay-friendly blockbuster, big movies generally lagging far behind comic books and the rest of the culture when it comes to these issues. And there are good shots, a few decent action scenes and montages. But that weird fake London thing comes back to haunt it — we get used to Hugo Weaving’s mask after one scene, but never get used to Natalie Portman’s accent. And the filmmakers (James McTeague and the Wachowskis) compound the awkwardness by casting Stephen Rea as the other major British character. He does OK, but a whole level of unease could have been stripped away by casting a Brit.

Alan Moore objected to the changes made to his comic (“All I’m saying is, just give me the deal you were happy to give [Superman creators] Siegel and Schuster for decades: don’t mention my name and don’t pay me any money”) but I think tying the film’s fascists into the real-world neo-cons was a brave and admirable move — had the film proved a hit, we could be enjoying more political blockbusters. The bigger betrayal was cutting all the talk of anarchy. The other biggest change is trading an atomic war backstory, which barely worked in the eighties original, for a biological terrorist attack — this is OK in itself, but leads to a lot of time being spent on the 9/11 truther conspiracy plot (which never made sense to me — the human experiments preceded the rise of fascism?), exposited through wooden verbiage and wedging out more piquant material, like the mean, DR PHIBES details of V’s vendetta — in the comic he kills a pedophile priest with a poisoned communion wafer, thus disproving the miracle of transubstantiation. And does the Wachowskis’ love of kink lead them to make slightly too much of Natalie P in her little girl costume? Possibly.

The rhythms of the film are also odd — to deal with the overwritten dialogue, the actors all underplay and talk fast, both of which are approaches I like but in particular the fast talking sits oddly with the standard action movie portentousness, It’s like the pompous self-importance doesn’t have room to breathe. Arguably a good thing, but it doesn’t quite play.

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But it gets better — first with Sinead Cusack’s cameo — bring on the great actors and things generally get better — again the dialogue is sometimes unsayable but she sells it. And then in my favourite chapter from the comic, the Valerie sequence, the most faithfully adapted part of the movie, thank God, Natasha Wightman’s voice-over does just what it needs to. I always find this bit very moving in comic and film.

At the same time, as she moves from doubt to anguish, Portman finds her dramatic footing and simultaneously limbers up for GOYA’S GHOSTS, part of her Trilogy of Torture which has either yet to be concluded or climaxed with YOUR HIGHNESS which tortured the audience.

And I still feel a thrill at the Houses of Parliament going up at the end. “It’s a shame, though — it’s a nice building,” said Fiona after we saw this on release.

“Yeah, but, can’t make an omelette…”

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Of course, the film’s lasting significance is the face it gave to Occupy, that anti-political political movement (whose spokesman is surely Russell Brand). Alan Moore was amused by the irony of a piece of Warner Brothers marketing being commandeered by an anti-corporate movement — every mask sold adding dollars to the WB coffers. But he was also a little touched, I think.