2012 Film Challenge #19 - The Dirty Dozen

No, I'd never seen The Dirty Dozen before.

A fine ensemble cast, the only women to be seen are to be slept with – this is one of those laddish manly films, isn't it? The sort all men everywhere are supposed to watch with their tops off – hands resting on bloated, sunburned bellies as they consider the notion of “real men”. Yeah.

Tom Hanks and Billy Crystal tearfully recollect the film in Sleepless & Seattle, don't they? Everything comes back to Sleepless & Seattle.

Well, it's true that Lee Marvin here is fantastic as exactly the sort of person you'd want leading you into battle – gritty, cool, and probably drunk – and Telly Savalas is terrifying as the racist religious nut with the penchant for murdering dames – but the rest of them are gruff and surly like the sort of men whose pubs I wouldn't dare enter – Franko in particular is a right arrogant prick – inspiring no small amount of eye rolling.

The Dirty Dozen are a group of condemned inmates with lax attitudes towards personal hygiene who're given a chance at salvation – pass training and undertake a deadly mission and that's it: you're forgiven. Yeah.

So we spend a few hours watching them go through training and then they go on their mission.

Now, it was at this point that the film became quite hard to take. Their mission is to kill a group of German officers. This they achieve, and it's a slaughter – they're unarmed and ensconced in a bunker, terrified, amongst a group of screaming innocent women.

And yet our heroes gleefully poured petrol and dropped hand grenades down their air-shafts as these trapped prisoners desperately scrabbled at the locked doors. And I thought – isn't this exactly the sort of atrocity we'd expect from the Nazis?

Reportedly, the director was informed that had he removed the above scene, then he might have been eligible for a best director Oscar. He apparently considered it, but decided to keep it in to show that “war is hell”.

Yeah. But it doesn't come across that way. The scene is framed as the satisfying conclusion to all that's come before – it's portrayed as heroic and just rather than savage and cowardly.

The best war films are those which cast all soldiers from either side as individuals caught up in something bigger than themselves which, ultimately, has nothing to do with them. The worst are those which consider that there are, in this world, “bad guys”.

This is the latter. The Germans (never “Nazis”, always "Germans") are the bad guys. As such, it's one of the worse war films and leaves a very sour taste in the mouth.

As a result, I'm once again quite pleased that I don't pass many of the “real man” tests. If being a man involves subscribing to stuff like this, then I'd rather be sneered at now and then, thanks.


2012 Film Challenge #18 - The Muppets (2011)

For some reason I recently took to convincing myself that I didn't grow up with The Muppets. That sounds ridiculous, doesn't it? And it is. It went like this – I saw an outpouring of affection in the run-up to the release of this – their first cinematic outing since 1999 -  and thought, I've no right to join in. I didn't grow up with The Muppets.

Why did I do that? Was I so resigned to the whole “the cynics have won” idea that, when presented with something that suggested that all is not lost and that people do still take unabashed joy in things – I just refused to let myself join in?

For the truth is, of course I grew up with The Muppets. Did I not go and see their Christmas Carol when I was five, and has it not since formed an essential part of the whole celebration to the point that – as recently as last year – I considered Christmas to have truly begun from the instant it came on TV? And did I not used to absolutely love Muppets Tonight when I was, what? Nine? Ten?

Of course I grew up with The Muppets. We all did. And that's why I know I'm not the only one to have found this film almost overwhelmingly wonderful.

An opening monologue said it all – in so many words – so long as there are Muppets, there is hope.

It's that simple. They represent a very pure, innocent and resilient enjoyment of life. Though their humour is knowing and self-referential, it's a world away from the hateful “banter” and snarky “sideways looks” that seem to be prerequisites for laughter in the twenty-first century.

Indeed, for perhaps the very first time, this film explicitly identified The Muppets as an antidote to cynicism. Starting out as a tribute act, the antagonist enlists a team of “Moopets” as a “hard and cynical replacement for a hard and cynical world”. They wear black leather and chains and so resemble the baddies from every eighties film, ever – or, at the very least, the cast of Meet The Feebles.

Yes, they're dated, but they're still seriously bad news. And though I knew that The Muppets would ultimately triumph, all the same I still found myself fearing for their future – and I still found myself to be genuinely moved by the arguably “predictable” happy ending.

You could argue, then, that this thing made me regress to a regrettable state of childhood wonder – or, alternatively, you could consider the notion that perhaps some things are sacred, some things are worth caring about and some things are just plain lovely right down to the core.

If you want to argue otherwise, go ahead. I don't care.

Why should I? The Muppets exist.

And not only do they exist, but they now have an 80s Robot and a ridiculously catchy soundtrack by Brett McKenzie of Flight of the Conchords!

And they come with a bonus new Toy Story short which featured the immortal Ghost Burger!

Having saw this last night, a good mood was instilled that still hasn't quite lifted.

It seems that The Muppets always meant more to me than I'd ever let on.


2012 Film Challenge #17 - Carry-On Screaming!

Carry-On films aren't very good, but they're far from unwatchable. This one, though, it's notorious, isn't it? A parody of the horror films which succeeds in being every bit as – if not more so – disturbing as the films it so gleefully lampoons.

Nearly a decade ago (Christ), Channel 4 put out some fantastic Halloween related television. It all centred around one of their lists – ho, I miss their lists – The 100 Scariest Moments.

This appeared in it, and originally I thought it to be one of the more innocuous entries – the sort that's only included because those who compiled the list had memories of childhood trauma attached. Not really scary now, but it used to be.

However, I did find this quite scary. Hammer Horror films feature gruelling horror with occasional flashings of light relief. This was light relief with occasional forays into truly disquieting territory.

Dr. Watt has an evil money-making scheme which seems so flawed in its money-making potential that it has to have been devised based purely on deep-seated sadism: He's boiling women alive to turn them into wax mannequins to sell to shops.

I mean, how much must mannequins be if abduction, torture and murder represents a preferable alternative to just buying them? No, Dr. Watt must be doing this because he's enjoying it. Frying tonight!

But he's not enjoying it, is he? The whole thing wears him out to the point that he has to plug himself into the mains and literally recharge. He's compelled then. He does it because he has to.

That, combined with the fact that he's Kenneth Williams and so accompanies his horrific deeds with a slew of double entendres makes him even worse than the Jigsaw Killer, if you ask me.

There's nothing worse than a self-righteous serial killer. Seven, Saw and Phonebooth: They're sanctimonious, tedious hypocrites.

In aiming for gentle comedy, though, the Carry-On gang accidentally achieved horrifying gold.

Is that saying something? Perhaps it is.

2012 Film Challenge #16 - Porridge

I've never really seen the TV series on which this is based before. Of course I've been in the room whilst it's been on, but we sort of kept out of each others way. Never did this mutual tolerance extend to actual engagement with one another. Fletcher and friends entertained themselves whilst I tried not to make eye contact.

But having seen this film, that's something I'll have to redress should the opportunity ever arise. But it never seems to be on any more. And I'm not so keen that I'll consider buying a boxset. Sorry, Ronnie.

There were two curious aspects of the plot. First, a screw started work at the prison at about the same time as a new inmate arrived. They were both finding their feet at the same time – both immersed in the same environment but in vastly different worlds.

Then came the marvellous conceit of prisoners trying to break in to prison. This reversal of the standard prison-film fare feels unique, but I suppose it was quite necessary. The film's set one year before the series ended. To have Fletcher involved in the antics you'd expect from a cinematic inmate would be to break canon and continuity. He has to remain inside. Poor guy.

Until he goes straight, of course.

Filmed entirely on location in an actual real prison, this made for an atmosphere that was cold, clinical and stifling, but also surprisingly cosy. With the heating turned up, such locales as the screw bar and Fletcher's cell would become havens in the midst of the grime.

And it ended in exactly the same way as did every single episode of every single British sitcom of the seventies – with a cheeky visual punchline and a freeze frame.



2012 Film Challenge #15 - You've Got Mail

A dark foreboding prediction of things to come: When this film first came out, the internet and all its trimmings were fresh, clean and sparkling. Here, the implications this then-emerging technology would have on human interaction were explored for perhaps the first time in mainstream glossiness. And it often makes for chilling viewing. It's all here: The anonymity, the creation of idealised online personae, the careful consideration and second-thoughts experienced in the seconds before clicking “send”.

I was, in all honesty, expecting a fizzy schmaltz of a romantic comedy. I was expecting Sleepless in Seattle.

But no. Most of it took place in a cosy glowing autumnal world of books. It's full of nice jumpers, nice furniture, nice wallpaper and earnest quasi-learned discussions about Pride & Prejudice.

I was wondering, at first, why this film isn't embraced by certain sections of the blogosphere as covetous lifestyle porn. Is it because people wrongly suppose that it's the fizzy schmaltz of a romantic comedy I originally supposed it to be?

No. It's because, in the final third, it becomes every bit of the fizzy schmaltz of a romantic comedy it was always going to be when, for the sake of a happy ending, Meg Ryan hooks up with her online stalker who also happens to be responsible for the destruction of her dreams and livelihood.



2012 Film Challenge #14 - Trading Places

One negative aspect of pledging to write about every film I see for the first time in 2012 is that I will, on occasion, have no choice but to admit to having never seen a film that everyone else already has.

And here we have a John Landis film starring Dan Ackroyd, and I've never seen it before. Here we have the film used as proof that Eddie Murphy used to be funny by those who insist that Eddie Murphy isn't funny any more, and I've never seen it.

I have now, though.

It concerns the affairs of men so rich that they've taken to amusing themselves with mad bets. Playing with the whole nature/nurture debate, the theory is that Dan Ackroyd and Eddie Murphy are nothing more than products of their environments. To prove this, they destroy Dan Ackroyd and give Eddie Murphy limitless wealth, a big house and a really important job.

The film sort of falls on the nurture side of the debate as, within days of the switch, Mr. Ackroyd has taken to crime and Mr. Murphy is able to translate his street-smarts into Wall Street-smarts.

Ultimately, though, the point is made that nothing has a more devastating effect upon character and morality than does the love of money. The smug billionaires are eventually brought to justice in the most fitting ways possible – by losing everything they hold dear and being subjected to prolongued gorilla rape.

Yes, the corrupt, amoral Wall Street stock-brokers use racial slurs and play havoc with the lives of others for their own petty amusement.

Those who were children in a world in which films like this exist would grow up to be the Occupy Wall Street generation. Whilst towards the end a lot of the jokes seem to amount to “look how foreign he is!”, all told this thing is every bit as prescient as it used to be.

Plus is involves a scene in which a disgraced Dan Ackroyd dressed as a dishevelled Santa stuffs a salmon down his jacket. Was this the inspiration for Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections? Perhaps. But not even Mr. Franzen could come up with an image more soaked in desperate decadence than that of Mr. Ackroyd eating said salmon through his grubby synthetic beard.


2012 Film Challenge #13 - Kill List

A genre piece. But what genre? True, British grit, or disquieting folk horror? It's somewhere between This Is England and The Wicker Man, but I'm pretty comfortable placing it into a sub-sub-sub-genre of “films what start out perfectly normal like but end up well mental” - in which you're not quite able to pinpoint the precise moment at which things go wrong.

Previously, beyond perhaps David Lynch's entire canon, there was only really one entrant in this curious genre: Synecdoche New York. Have you seen it? It goes mad in the most organic way possible. And so does Kill List. Already I want to watch it again so I can look out for the clues. By the end, scenes which were previously completely innocuous – even charmingly innocent – took on a horribly sinister turn.

I know this one to be notorious for shocking violence and an overall disturbing atmosphere – that's what drew me to it in the first place - and such films usually arouse a great deal of curiosity from the likes of me. I often find myself scouring the web for a clue into what might cause such controversy.

And I'm often disappointed by bloggers and reviewers who keep their cards close to their chest. But now I think I understand. The joy is in not knowing. It's simple: The less you know about this film before you watch it, the more it'll shock you, the more you'll enjoy it.

Suffice to say, though, that it divides opinion and raises a lot more questions than it answers. It's been described as a “cult hit in the making”. Personally, I think it's already there.

Horror is supposed to get under the skin. This one, though, burrows into the brain. Most scenes featured an approximation of Hitchcock's “ice-box moments” - where only afterwards do you realise that something's amiss. Why was an image carved into the back of the bathroom mirror? Why was the same image scribbled on the shoebox in the lock-up filled with the things that cannot be unseen? Why did everyone, before dying, seem genuinely grateful?

There's a lot going on, and whilst it probably wouldn't do the old grey matter – or the social life - any good to spend too much time watching it; this is chilling, engrossing and mystifying food-for-thought.

Kudos too for the incredible dissonant soundtrack – very reminiscent of the misty, haunting landscapes created by Richard Skelton.

A lot to love here.

Or maybe you'll just find it utterly repulsive.

It takes all sorts.


2012 Film Challenge #12 - Hands of the Ripper

In the opening moments of this film, one of Victorian London's greatest mysteries is solved as the identity of Jack the Ripper is revealed. This makes this, perhaps, the only film to ever open with a big twist.

Poor Anna, Jack the Ripper's orphaned daughter, is blighted with a terrible condition whereby bright, twinkling lights cause for her to enter a deadly trance. Should someone kiss her on the cheek whilst she's in this state, she instantly murders them using whatever's at hand: A fire poker, a hand mirror, a pincushion.

It's hinted, though, that Anna is frequently whored out by her “grandmother”. Quite how she went seventeen years without suffering one of her “turns” remains unclear. The initial one is triggered when one of her would-be “clients” gives her a glittering bracelet. He couldn't've been the first to do this, so why is it implied that this is the first time Anna's found herself possessed by the murderous soul of her notorious father?

Perhaps the condition had lain dormant for sixteen years, only to emerge as part of puberty – like the mutant powers in X-Men.

Well, there's a police inquest featuring a gathering of the final facial hair to ever grace a single scene. Here a kindly old psychotherapist, enamoured with Freud, decides to experiment on Anna to see if her condition can be understood and cured.

This, though, simply allows for Anna to kill and kill again in a series of shockingly violent (as opposed to schlockingly violent) murder scenes.

In short, it's brilliant – and the utterly adorable blind woman who meanders smilingly through several scenes adds much light to this otherwise dark and tragic tale.

I loved it.

This is becoming something of a Hammer Horror year for me, isn't it? Long may it last.

2012 Film Challenge #11 - Dark Floors

Remember Lordi, who reaped Eurovision victory with their theatrical hard rock? Did you know that they had their own film? I didn't. And, unfortunately, even having watched said film, I'm still not convinced.

Does that make sense? No? Basically, whilst allowing that I've heard precisely one song from their repertoire, with their gaudy monstrous costumes (and the fact that they appeared on Eurovision), I'd've thought that they were fun. You know, one of those fun bands.

"Lordi The Movie" should have had them using magical powers to solve murder mysteries, or perhaps fighting robot demons from hell using nothing but jagged riffs and metallic growls. Instead, though, we got the most expensive Finnish horror film ever made which also happens to be incredibly dull. The walls aren't so much dripping with blood as with tedium.

There's a little girl in a wheelchair who may or may not be psychic. She and a group of cyphers find themselves trapped in space and time having boarded an elevator they shouldn't've. This leads to dark and gloomy corridors filled with flickering lights, disembodied voices and sudden jumps Рmodern horror owes so much of a debt to survival horror video games that it all looks and feels the same now. This film, and many others like it, could form the basis for a bout of clich̩ bingo, or perhaps a hackneyed-horror drinking game.

And what a disappointment it is, as a result. It's dark, gloomy and tired where it should have been loud, outrageous and fun. And, apart from anything else, it doesn't really make any sense.

Apparently, those who really get Lordi also get this film. It seems that the plot makes a lot more sense if you're aware of the various lore surrounding each member of the band.

And, for some reason, the idea that you're supposed to take Lordi so seriously makes me feel really sad.