2012 Film Challenge #33 - The Likely Lads

A month or two ago I watched Carry On Screaming. My mum was in the room, and she expressed a never-before-expressed appreciation for the Carry On oeuvre. I asked her why, and she said that they provide a chance to see England like it used to be – the grubby net curtains, strange wallpaper, the tins of shelves arranged neatly in the supermarkets.

She'd have loved The Likely Lads. It's like Carry On – in that it shows the England in which she grew up – but it has a lot less in the way of double-entendres.

Unfortunately, what it lacks in raised eyebrows it more than makes up for in philandering and wholly less subtle and thus, less innocent, perviness. There's a horrible extended sequence where our hero spies on women in fitting rooms, and at one point, at a loss, in desperation they decide to visit Boots, as fit women always work at Boots.

Maybe mum wouldn't've loved The Likely Lads after all.

Different time though, wasn't it? And the notion that these things come to an end happens to form the theme of this ultimately sad, pathological exploration of faded lives.

It opens when the housing estate on which our heroes grew up is demolished – along with their beloved local – completely without ceremony. This leads to a crisis of identity, a disastrous camping trip and an attempt to sleep with – or at the very least, catch an eyeful of – any vaguely attractive woman who happens to enter the same postcode as our heroes.

I've never seen the series, so I didn't know what to expect. The tone, though, was more sad and mournful than riotous and uproarious. I wasn't really expecting the latter, though, and I suppose that when things take place in the North-East, things will never be anything less than grim, gloomy and dreary.

At one point they cut through a funfair out of season – remembering the good times they'd had in those environs. Their wistful remembrances, coupled with the drizzle, the uniform-white overcast sky, the run-down ghost train and fun house and the general desertion made for an atmosphere of almost unbearable desolation. “It feels like we're the last men on Earth.”

Had this film been measured and miserable throughout, I would have loved it. The jokes for me destroyed this comforting air of melancholy.

And Jesus Christ, what does that say about me?

Can anybody recommend a film set in the North of England that has the grimness of The Likely Lads with none of the smut?

2012 Film Challenge #32 - The Lair Of The White Worm

The late Ken Russell has achieved immortality, for he made The Lair Of The White Worm.

It's like a cross between An American Werewolf In London, Withnail & I and early Peter Jackson. And though I really quite like even the most Hugh Grant of Hugh Grant films, his appearance in this might make some reconsider the notion that he's a charlatan of syrup – or worse.

And Peter Capaldi – who I really do dislike – in this has long floppy hair, glasses and a fascination with pre-Christian religion. He saves the day whilst wearing a kilt and playing the bagpipes. I had previously assumed him to be as irritating and despicable as Malcolm Tucker – where does the character end and the man begin? - but it turns out that he has range. Who knew? Maybe he should make a return to low-budget folk-horror in order to save his soul.

The central conceit – that heathen pagan Romans destroyed the sanctuary of a covenant – doesn't ring true at all. Everybody knows that Christianity didn't reach England 'til 597. But we'll let it pass. Early on, the weird landed-gentry heretic snake woman vomits on a crucifix. Later, when touched by a maiden, this triggers a hallucinatory mind-fuck in which a giant white worm encircles Christ as he looks sadly on at the hedonistic mass-rape of still behabited nuns under a swirling neon sky.

When it allows for such sudden descents into the bizarre, I think we can allow for a historical anachronism or two.

Then there's the music – The D'Ampton Worm – a rollicking piece of electronic folk-rock which sounds like The Levellers – this is played at a party which sees Hugh Grant gleefully serve pickled earthworms in aspic.

And the seduction and murder of an innocent boyscout who we're later told has terrible BO and halitosis.

And finally we learn how exactly to take care of a vampire policeman. You have to push him onto a sundial which resembles a snake. It makes his eye fall out.

The Lair Of The White Worm never does anything wrong, and it's never any less than amusing, fascinating and enthralling.

A lot of bad has and will be said of Ken Russell, but I defy anybody to argue that he was ever boring.

And it's set in Derby, where I live now!

2012 Film Challenge #31 - Beyond The Mind's Eye

This is one of the best things I've ever seen. And I've seen U2.

It's like Fantasia for the nineties: A celebration of forward-thinking, state-of-the-art computer animation set to the best music imaginable.

The visuals are trippy and psychedelic, and it doesn't look as though a lot of thought has gone into the sequencing – one scene of mind-expanding sensory overload blends seamlessly into another disparate but equally transcendent sensory overload.

At its most brilliant, a team of robots are drumming on a geometric expanse whilst an eyeball watches an electronic incarnation of The Supremes on TV; a production line of metal men are fed a drink called “Too Much Juice”, whilst a portly gent in a chair gets stuck in a loop of perpetual head-exploding and regeneration.

There's no story, no narrative. It's made by about twenty different production companies, each of whom are basically saying “look how amazing computers are!”.

It's an hour long tech-demo which perfects a state of utopian bliss right from the start. Not a single dull moment throughout, and you don't even have to be drunk or stoned to enjoy it.

Yes, the computer animation's dated quite a bit. But as a time capsule of how wonderful, exciting and optimistic things must have seemed in the early nineties (it's saying “THIS IS THE FUTURE”), Beyond The Mind's Eye has stood the test of time.

But they're the visuals. This for me was a revelation on the account of the music.

In these days of James Ferraro and Oneohtrix Point Never, the stabby synths and trebly wailing guitars, when set to what is, essentially, a disjointed if bespoke video collage, have suddenly taken on a whole new relevancy. Anybody who's as enamoured with this whole hypnagogic/hauntological pop thing as I am should seek out a copy of Beyond The Mind's Eye post haste – for here is where it all started. This is the year zero.

It ends with a vocal reprise of Seeds of Life - the anthemnic number from earlier.

This alone was enough to make composer Jan Hammer – spotted in the electric forest jamming along on a keytar – a new hero of mine.

2012 Film Challenge #30 - The Fun Parade

This is one of those cheap videos full of old cartoons of which everybody seemed to have a small library when they were six. However, The Fun Parade's slightly different. Compiled by a company called Diamond Films in 1986, it's been quite expertly edited together into a flowing whole.

These are very, very old cartoons. The soundtrack is faded as hell on a lot of them, and where the music's been lost, The Diamond Film Players add their own terrifying funk workouts. The animation's ropey, and time's not been kind to the quality of the video. However, this just makes for a unique grainy, hazy, almost dreamlike quality and a unique hypnagogic viewing experience completely without precedent in this digital age.

It opened with a couple of detectives seeking out a pink ghost in a dilapidated post-apocalyptic city. This suddenly segued without warning into an operatic piece in which a villain pursues a maiden.

He's the first of two or three villains in The Fun Parade. Villains are immediately identifiable by their top hats, their leers and their beards. You don't really see them these days.

Next comes a kangaroo (who resembled a gaunter Mickey Mouse) driven up the wall by a baby ostrich and a faulty vacuum cleaner. This is followed by my personal favourite – a curiously British affair in which a cabbie raises a taxi from birth in the interests of forming a business partnership. But on their first day, they're bullied and intimidated by the other taxis, so the plucky cabbie has to turn to devious means in order to get ahead in a competitive market.

Then there was another villain tormenting another maiden (though this villain was a wolf), which preceded a short piece about a rabbit so banal and twee that we had to zip through it.

The penultimate piece was another in which the soundtrack had been lost. But, unfazed, The Diamond Players simply improvised a jaunty polka accompaniment. It concerned a jamboree in the snow tormented by what I thought was another villain, though I was told that this was more of a ne'er-do-well. He was defeated, though, by the formidable team of a young buck and a sentient furnace.

Finally came a strange PIF about road safety in which two gay snowmen caused havoc in a land populated by fairytale characters. They made Simple Simon (the pieman) into a road hog and encouraged Cinderella's Prince Charming to show-off by driving too fast. The best bit, though, was where they caused a bout of road rage which saw a giant hammering his opponent on the head (to The Anvil Chorus) whilst a duck lay eggs in the back of his car.

The king sorted everything out in the end, releasing two benevolent spirits who made everything right. Most pointedly, they made Jack Spratt's wife, who had been transformed into a back-seat driver by the gay snowmen, agree to shut up.

Things ended very suddenly after this, but we were left amused and nostalgic – remembering those days when we could watch cartoons all day with no recourse. We must have seen thousands over the years. We had scores of video compendiums like The Fun Parade, but also entire three hour tapes which had been filled back-to-back with anything – anything at all – so long as it was animated.

One of them was called Cartoons, Cartoons & Even More Cartoons – it had been made for us by our great uncle and was filled mainly with Popeye. Then there was a video on which was written “tank” - this one was filled with wall-to-wall Thomas The Tank Engine. And we also had a green tape filled with Thunderbirds.

You could probably begin an in-depth study into the ways these disjointed animation compendiums shape upbringings and world-views. But I've no doubt that that way lies sadness and yet another quarter-life crisis.

This article's headed by an image of a top hat (a tribute to the villains) because I could not for the life of me find any images of any of the cartoons featured in The Fun Parade. Of course, I could just take a picture of the box, but shut up.


2012 Film Challenge #29 - The Pirates In An Adventure With Scientists

What's more exciting: The prospect of a new Pixar film, or the prospect of a new Aardman film?

Of course, there's no real answer to the unanswerable. So long as the Pixar film in question doesn't star a cast of anthropomorphic cars*, you can be sure that their lush efforts will be funny, heartwarming, enthralling and, should the protagonist be a robot or an octogenarian, utterly soul-destroying.

Aardman films, on the other hand, are a guaranteed hoot. They're silly, anarchic and very, very British. And, with the exception of Flushed Away, they generally offer rare big-screen outings for a very charming form of hand-crafted animation.

Choosing between Pixar and Aardman, then, is like choosing between Lou Reed and John Cale – they're both insanely brilliant as to make us consider that there really must exist genius and beauty in the world.

Anyway, who said we had to choose?

Yesterday was Aardman's day, as we went to see The Pirates In An Adventure With Scientists.

I'm always keen to find a single entity which serves to sum up something bigger. Is that a synechedoche? I don't want to describe it as such with anything approaching confidence in case I'm wrong. But I think I'm right.

Anyway, you know how, for the sake of pacing, it's always necessary that a story arc must take a turn for the hopeless as it enters its final act?

When Pirates... reached that stage, as usual the heavens opened and the music specifically designed to tug the heart-strings faded-in.

Only, this time the music sounded strangely familiar. Almost instantly, it hit me: I'm Not Crying by Flight of the Conchords.

I think it speaks volumes of this film's dedication to fun and good times that even when the events onscreen are supposed to invite pathos, the carefully chosen music still tries to make you laugh. And it succeeds!

The pirates are a motley mob of misfits, and they're a very rounded group of characters considering that they don't even have names. Case in point, the heroic pirate captain is know, to his friends and enemies alike, as Pirate Captain. Brilliant.

The humour is anarchic, knowing, silly and relentless – it never goes for the cheap pop-culture nod in order to invite an audience to mistake familiarity for mirth (take note, Dreamworks). The animation is beautiful and is served perfectly by its rough-hewn hand-crafted finish. The soundtrack is a rousing mix of 70s rock, and often the film supports the notion that food looks much more delicious when animated than it does in real life.

A rip-roaring swashbucking treat for the whole family!**


* I believe that Pixar only made the disappointingly naff Cars in order to reassure us that they are indeed human and thus capable of making mistakes. Cars 2, on the other hand, was made to cash-in on a lucrative merchandise market. But if this provides the juice to keep the Pixar motors running, who's complaining? I'm quite happy with the prospect of putting-up with bland offerings like Cars if it entails that we have things like Brave to look forward-to.

** This is my attempt at a soundbite – a gobbet – to appear on posters alongside “Utterly hilarious – The Daily Telegraph” - wish me luck!


2012 Film Challenge #28 - Critters 3

I know there to be no channel in the world superior to The Horror Channel. Of course, they show some dross from time to time, but even their dross is outstanding by virtue of the fact that there is absolutely nothing else like it being shown anywhere else.

The same cannot be said of BBC 3, can it?

Besides. Who else would have the benevolence to broadcast an only slightly-cut version of Critters 3 on a Sunday morning?

In a choice between Critters 3 and the Hollyoaks Omnibus, I'm not sure that myself and someone who'd opt for the latter would have much to say to each other. Of course, we'd get along. We might even call each other friends. But that mutual soul-stroke that occurs at eye contact would be out of the question. We'd never get very far.

I think I've seen precisely fourteen seconds of the first Critters – a scene where three of the smiley divels are stood in a row. One of their number's hit by a broomstick, sending him flying. This causes for the two remaining to share a look and a high-pitched bestial growl – helpfully translated via subtitles as “Shit!”

This told me all I needed to know about the series to understand and enjoy this third instalment: this is a film which wouldn't exist were it not for Gremlins. Luckily, though, like the film it so dearly wants to be, it doesn't take itself at all seriously.

Think of this, then, as part two in a series I really hope I can continue – films which bank on being mistaken for other, more famous films.

This was better than The Humanoid, though.

It's perhaps most famous for including an early outing for Leonardo DiCaprio. He shows up at the Critter-infested tenement block with his stepfather. Seconds after establishing himself as A Bad, Bad Man, said stepfather is chewed to death by the Critters. And, seconds before said stepfather is chewed to death by the Critters, young Di-Prio screams at him: “I wish you were dead!” - only to spend the remainder of the film tormented by guilt.

See, right from the start Mr. Leo was drawn to the complex roles; the tortured minds; the depth, the depth.

There are a couple of brilliant scenes of Eistensteinesque montage. The aforementioned death by chewing is accompanied by sickening footage of a chicken carcass being torn apart by a grinning cook-show host. Similarly, a scene in which a gaggle of Critters are toppled by a hurled bin is inter-cut with a TV bowling match.

There's also a scene prerequisite to entries to the “adorable but murderous creatures” genre of ANTICS – in this one, a Critter binges on a pot full of beans (with predictable results), whilst another downs a bottle of washing-up liquid and spends the rest of his tragically cut-short life blowing bubbles.

The Critters themselves are indeed adorable. They're not as cute as Mogwais, but not as twee, either. They're far cuter than the Gremlins, though. They therefore combine the fluffiness of Gizmo with the menace of his mutated counterparts. I think I'd rather have a tame, vegetarian Critter as a pet than I would a Mogwai. You wouldn't have to be so careful, and he'd be great fun.

I'd call him my little fluffy Knight of the Realm.