2012 Film Challenge #27 - Smokey And The Bandit

ITV 4 seem to have submitted their Sunday afternoons to the showing of cosy, undemanding hangover-friendly films in which men are men and rogues are loveable.

As a result, I seem to have submitted my Sunday afternoons to the watching of cosy, undemanding hangover-friendly films in which men are men and rogues are loveable.

And they always seem to be watched with tea, biscuits and, increasingly, blueberries.

Life can be wonderful sometimes. So long as you train yourself to take joy in that which will give you a heart attack, life can be wonderful.

So it was in these circumstances that I watched Field of Dreams the other week, and it was in these circumstances that I watched Smokey and the Bandit.

Despite never having seen it before, I knew enough about this film to be able to say in the opening moments to she who matters most: “wait 'til you see how manly the main guy is in this.”

Burt Reynolds. Would you just look at that moustache. And he's called Bandit. Not The Bandit. Just Bandit. Like Madonna. One word. Or Morrissey.

It's his handle. He's a trucker. But he hasn't got the coolest handle in the film. That honour would have to be bestowed upon Gravedigger.

My handle would be Lord Gloom.

Anyway, Bandit's been tasked with illegally shipping crates of beer on an 1800 mile round-trip in 22 hours or so.

As elevator pitches go, I struggle to think of any manlier.

Oh, you may try, but I can guarantee that any you might care to mention might feature men – spitting, raping, fighting men – but this one features a gent.

Yes, Bandit's piss might taste like freedom itself, but he's polite, deferential, witty, gentle and dedicated.

A true role model, or just another of my many regrettable man-crushes?

Hot on his heels is hysterical racist and increasingly unhinged Sherrif Buford T. Justice.

That's actually his name.

My god, what a world, that has such people in it.

2012 Film Challenge #26 - The Hunger Games

I recently moved to Derby. It's a really, really nice city, filled with really, really nice people and surrounded by really, really nice countryside.

Be that as it may, very few bands come to play here, and the clubs seem terrified to risk playing anything other than inadmissable chart R'n'B. As a result, there isn't really that much to do of a night out except sit around and drink and talk.

Which suits me fine. But what do you do when the bars close?

Luckily, the local multiplex shows films all night. Is this uncommon?

It seems to be the done thing here to show up around midnight and watch what ever's on. It's an infinitely thrilling practice, not just because you don't know what to expect, but also because you invariably end up watching something you might never have otherwise considered watching.

I wonder if the locals have a special term for this practice, like young Spaniards do for the act of illegally sharing wine/coke mixtures on street corners?

I have so much to learn.

Anyway, it was in exactly these circumstances that I wound up watching The Hunger Games.

I know for a fact that I would never have otherwise entertained the notion of ever sitting through this thing. This owes a lot to it having been bandied about as “the new Twilight”, and, of course, as a result of it looking rather a lot like Battle Royale.

Having watched it, though, even though I dozed through about five minutes, I am still able to conclude that:

a) This is not the “new Twilight” - it's not nearly ridiculous, shallow and empty enough to warrant such a title.

b) The Hunger Games has about as much in common with Battle Royale as Ed TV does with The Truman Show.

That's to say that, whilst they might share a central conceit (kids killing kids), the details and the surrounding circumstances are enough to make it a separate entity altogether – one more than worthy of being judged on its own merits.

And oh, does it have merits. Donald Sutherland! Woody Harrelson! Toby Jones!

Yes, I really enjoyed The Hunger Games.

And to think: If Derby had a superior music scene, I might never have seen it.

Swings and roundabouts?


2012 Film Challenge #25 - The Humanoid

How about that. We're about a quarter of the way through the year and I'm exactly a quarter of the way through my 2012 film challenge.

And what better way to celebrate this milestone than through watching a film whose entire existence seems to bank on being mistaken for Star Wars?

As rip-offs go, this one's utterly shameless. You have desert planets upon which the only discernible feature for miles is generic geometric machinery. You have long, wedge-shaped spaceships. You have an antagonist with a deep, gruff voice who walks around in a giant shiny black helmet. There's a pet robot, who sometimes makes identical noises to R2D2.

Only in this case, the robot's supposed to be a dog with a magnetic mouth. He has an aerial for a tail, which he wags when he's happy.

You see, it's in the details that The Humanoid transcends its status as a Star Wars rip-off.

The Humanoid in question is created when a gentle giant of a character is attacked by a pathetic little missile. Immediately, he's transformed into a grunting aggressive version of his former self – distinguished by the fact that his beard vanishes.

The bearded one's friendly, the clean-shaven one's evil. It's the opposite of that Star Trek opposite universe. Very clever.

He's created in order to bring the planet Metropolis to its knees. Metropolis is a nightmare of modernist design, where beatific slogans are piped almost subliminally into the minds of its bland, emotionless inhabitants. Nonetheless, our Darth Vader-aping antagonist wants nothing more than to rule this questionable nothing of a planet.

Perhaps we're being asked to question the notions of good and evil? Perhaps we're being invited to consider that, despite his gruff voice and shiny black helmet, the antagonist is actually the liberator? He wants to free Metropolis from the grasps of misguided utopian ideas and allow people to be human once again.

But then again, he's planning marriage with a woman who has ridiculously rigid flowing hair framing her face like an oversized cowl. She's being kept in a state of perpetual youth through putting young women in a curious glass machine which advances on them threateningly.

And anyone will tell you that you simply don't get more evil than that.

It's a total mess. In populating this hackneyed landscape with bland, wooden characters who seem wholly incapable of expressing any emotion, it actually ends up owing more to the Star Wars prequels than it does the original trilogy. There's even an annoying young boy running around being all precocious. It's The Phantom Menace twenty years before the fact.

But it's always amusing, entertaining and very, very watchable. The humanoid, when “running rampage”, is a shuffling pathetic zombie who vaguely manhandles scores of soldiers, sending them flying. Cheap laser effects ricochet off his barrel-chest, causing him to flinch just a little bit too late to make it look real.

And the music! It's Ennio Morricone, and veers from orchestral grandeur to bleepy Radiophonic electronics – sometimes within the same scene. The soundtrack alone would be enough to make this worth watching.

What I'm trying to say is, even as a cheap and tacky Star Wars rip-off, The Humanoid is unique. Not so much “so bad it's good” as “how was this made with a straight face”?

They should do a boxset of all the films which were hastily put together in a desperate attempt to cash-in on the success of Star Wars. It would contain this and Ice Pirates. But what else?

Then there could be a boxset of all those films featuring cute aliens in peril which came out in the wake of ET; and one of monstrous, murderous and adorable critters that sprung up post-Gremlins.

Have there been any films lately which were so popular they inspired scores of imitators?

The Matrix. Remember when everything in the world featured stoic slow motion Kung Fu in long black trench coats?

Jesus Christ, why is everything so boring these days?

2012 Film Challenge #24 - Field of Dreams

This one's misremembered and misquoted by everyone. How does it go?

If you build it, they will come.

Not even. It's actually:

If you build it, he will come.


But that wasn't even the finest, most memorable line in the film. I much preferred “What you grinning at, you ghost?”

But then, I would.

If I lived in America, I'd probably feel the same way about baseball as I do about cricket or rugby living in England. That's to say that, whilst I'd find it to be unbearably tedious, the lack of laddish, thuggish connotations would entail that I wouldn't be able to hate it as much as I do football.

Not living in America, though, baseball has a strange smoky quality about it. It tastes at once like creamy mint and like warm, sweaty hot dog meat. And nuts. Salty, salty nuts.

The words, names and phrases with which it's linked are wonderfully evocative of a sort of stoic romanticism.

That's why, despite being schmaltzy and, some might say, the embodiment of all that is morally dubious about conservative America, I found Field of Dreams to be captivating. Almost magical.

The whole film feels like summer. Specifically, a summer afternoon as dusk approaches and the shadows lengthen. It takes its time; nothing's rushed. Everything's measured, hazy, glowing.

I can understand completely why people would have problems with this film. But then, I can also understand completely why people would covet it so much.

I fall closer into the second category. But my appreciation's not rooted in a nostalgic reverence for baseball. Nor is it invested in empathy for Kevin Costner's daddy issues.

No. My appreciation's based wholly on the sounds, smells and tastes this film evokes. It's a crunchy, creamy, hazy, husky feast.

It can stay.


2012 Film Challenge #23 - Inglorious Basterds

Even before watching this I knew I'd be in trouble when it came to the writing about it. It's a film by Quentin Tarantino, so the chances are it'd be pretentious but highly entertaining with incredible depth. But at the same time, even vague knowledge of its synopsis was enough to tell me that it deals in exactly the sort of themes which made The Dirty Dozen appear so repellent to me.

Was I going to have to come across as a hypocrite?

Yes and no. Sort of.

Both this film and The Dirty Dozen deal with raggle-taggle bands of soldiers whose mission doesn't seem to extend beyond “kill as many as you can in order to reduce morale and spread terror”.

I found that quite hard to stomach in The Dirty Dozen, yet I haven't stopped thinking about Inglorious Basterds since I stopped watching. This I'm attributing to a few subtle yet important differences.

First of all, I believe at no point did The Dirty Dozen differentiate between Germans and Nazis. Inglorious Basterds, though, did. The Basterds themselves didn't, but the film did. It contained the notable line: “I'm more than just this uniform, you know”; and shown no small number of German soldiers as being human (as opposed to “the bad guys”).

I said in my reaction to The Dirty Dozen that the best war films are those which portray all soldiers,  regardless of allegiance, as individuals caught up in something bigger than themselves which, ultimately, has nothing to do with them.

I got that from Inglorious Basterds. The Allied Army differentiated between Nazis and Germans. To them, only members of the National Socialist Party, the Gestapo and the SS were “Nazis”. All else were just “Germans” - ordinary people who, don't forget, along with their families would have been subjected to no end of terror had they not partaken in the war effort.

This film takes that into account, and is much stronger as a result. More human.

We have German soldiers crying for their lives and begging for parlance as they've just become fathers. Even the omnipresent evil “Jew Hunter” was ultimately more interested in self-preservation than his ethnic cleansing – eventually finding his nickname repellent and instead choosing the winning side.

Secondly, whilst The Dirty Dozen are, without question, supposed to be the heroes – the “good guys”- despite the fact that they're on the winning side and are fronted by Brad Pitt, I don't believe that the Inglorious Basterds were supposed to be, well, good. They breach the Geneva Convention and use the sort of terror, torture and intimidation tactics against which they were supposed to be fighting.

Do you know what these shades of grey do? They “ask questions” and “invite discussion”. They're therefore the hallmark of an excellent story; the difference between a “work of art” and a “ripping yarn”.

Finally, in (SPOILER) having Hitler and the entire Nazi cabinet gunned down in a hellish inferno, this film takes an immense plunge into the realms of alternative-reality science-fiction. It is, explicitly and unashamedly, “fiction” – whereas The Dirty Dozen makes no such attempt to distance itself from reality.

It is, therefore, acceptable for me to have enjoyed Inglorious Basterds but not The Dirty Dozen. At least, I've justified it for myself.

I'm massively relieved, though, that Eli Roth's “Bear Jew” didn't have more screen time. His measured “look how COOL I am” tapping of a baseball bat along the walls of a tunnel, followed by a savage “look how UNHINGED I am” beating of an unarmed prisoner of war – complete with “deranged” baseball commentary – was tedious, odious and excruciating enough to make the skin-crawl. Had he featured any more, it might have had a devastating impact upon the film's watchability.

And Mr. Tarantino being Mr. Tarantino, a lot of cinematic geekiness/reverence lies below the surface. This is set in a world where films matter. More to the point, it's seemingly supposed to be set in his world: The Tarantino Universe – with several characters apparently intended to be the ancestors of those who would appear in his other films.

If that's true, then Mr. Tarantino's sort of shot himself in the foot. It means that every film he's ever made up to this point must now be re-assessed in the context of having taken place in a world in which WW2 ended a year early.

This means that there'd be no Holocaust, no Hiroshima and, perhaps, no Cold War.

You could speculate for years, but inarguably the world would be an unrecognisable place had the events of 1944-45 panned out at all differently.

This means that Mr. Tarantino has either given himself a green-light for any and all discrepancies that appear in his films to be attributed to “the war” (so that's why Beatrice is allowed to take her sword as hand luggage on the plane in the first Kill Bill!); or he's exposed himself as somebody who doesn't really think through the minutiae of his imagined worlds.

Or, perhaps it simply means that all of these are “just films”, and not really to be thought about in such depth.

Yeah, probably that one.


2012 Film Challenge #22 - Alaska

Whilst watching this film with two extremely dear associates of mine, at one point I proclaimed that the more films I watch, the more I realise that, these days, they don't really know how to make films any more. They seem to have simply forgotten how to make films.

Of course, occasionally something comes along that stands out. But take this: Alaska.

This is a classic three star film. It's simple, it's wholesome, it's not really of any consequence at all.

Be that as it may, it's brilliant.

Three star films aren't "brilliant" any more, are they?

It's got a young Thora Birch and a young Pete From Mad Men. It's got Charlton Heston and that man from Twin Peaks. It's got breathtaking scenery, genuinely stunning stunts and an utterly adorable polar bear called Cubby who, ultimately, saves the day like only animals could in the nineties.

This film doesn't insist on itself, and it doesn't really have anything to say about anything.

It's just...really quite ruddy brilliant – as pure as the blankets of snow over which our intrepid heroes trudge.

Or maybe it was just the context in which I watched it – wearing comfy trousers, a massive baggy comfort jumper, drinking a pint of tea and eating bacon with maple syrup washed down with a cup of gourmet coffee.

Yes. Tea and coffee. Almost simultaneously.

And two dear, dear associates.

Who wouldn't want a film like Alaska to watch in such context?

2012 Film Challenge #21 - Zardoz

Six months ago, I had never even heard of Zardoz. But then those mad old hypnotists at Mounds and Circles dedicated an entire week's worth of updates to its strange, strange world.

Essentially, I defy anybody who's got even a passing interest in film, science fiction or life itself to read through those updates and not want to watch Zardoz immediately.

The Zarikus alone will blow yer mind.

Below is a marvellous summation from Mr. Unmann Wittering himself. I simply could never have put it better myself:

“Long before I ever saw 'Zardoz', I was able to (unin)form an opinion of it based on stills from the production and other people's views of the film, i.e. it looked incredible, but was one of the worst films ever made. When I finally saw it, I was initially disappointed that it wasn't the hilarious spectacle promised but, instead, was hugely ambitious, not always successful, occasionally disastrous, eminently watchable. I've seen it again and again over the years and am proud to say that my informed opinion is that the critics are, as ever, full of shit. 'Zardoz' is a great film in the true sense of the word - big, bold, ballsy, brilliant and jam packed with mad ideas. Does it always work? No. Does it matter? No! It's what Friese-Greene invented cinema for.”

See, I watched this film at midnight having come home from a Johnny Foreigner gig. My ears were ringing and I was ever so slightly drunk. With beer and pretzels, I got increasingly drunk as the film progressed. It was bliss.

The point is, though, that whilst I watched it in a state wholly free from any sanctimonious preconceptions – I wasn't expecting it to be the worst film ever, nor was I willing for it to be one of those “so bad it's good” epics – I just watched this expecting to be entertained.

And I was. Perpetually. For over a hundred minutes.

Zardoz. There's not much like it out there.

It's bloody brilliant – and this is coming from somebody who has nothing to prove in saying that.

And it was less than £5 on Amazon.

It's perhaps the best small amount of money I've spent since I got all of those Moorcock books in one go.

Pure insane class from start to finish.


2012 Film Challenge #20 - Phenomena

Not to be confused with the John Travolta film of a similar name, this is a pre-Labyrinth Jennifer Connelly/Dario Argento joint about a troubled young woman who can communicate with insects.

However, Dr. Doolittle this isn't. The plot of Dr. Doolittle seems to stop at “he can talk to animals”. Jennifer, though (the character and actress share first names), uses her abilities to solve murder mysteries.

The scene in which her connection with insects is revealed is brilliant. She's sat in the back of a car with a teacher en route to her new and exclusive boarding school. A bee flies in, and the teacher absolutely freaks out. “IT'S A BEE,” she screams, as she furiously attempts to swat it with a book. The driver is equally perturbed. “IT MIGHT STING YOU!” - all screamed as though a headcrab, not a bumblebee, had just entered the car.

Jennifer, though, is more frightened that the bee might get hurt than she is that there's a bee. Calmly, she allows for the bee to land on her hand, at which point sanity is restored.

Honestly, though, it's perhaps the biggest overreaction ever committed to celluloid. Or, perhaps its simply an actor giving her one-dimensional character unnecessary backstory – since watching her parents die of bees, she's developed an extreme aversion. Also, she's allergic. And so is the driver.

This was the first Dario Argento film I've ever seen. He's quite a big name in the world of horror, isn't he? And yet, here we are – less than twenty four hours ago I hadn't seen any of his films.

Besides the brutality and the apparent fascination with deformity and decay, two things struck me about his style. Now, I'll admit that said “style” may be unique to this film, but still, when style rears its (dismembered) head, it's hard to ignore.

First, the music. His involvement with Goblin is legendary, and the stabby doomy synths which punctuated several chase scenes were really quite something. It was one of those “so this is Italian horror” moments through which every young boy goes at some point. I wasn't expecting, though, was for the mysterious and surreal sleepwalking sequence to underlined with Iron Maiden at their most bombastic. Sigh. 1980s.

What also struck me, though was the acting. With J-CO and Donald Pleasence involved (the latter I mistook for Sean Connelly at first, oh no!) - the dialogue was reportedly recorded in English and later dubbed into Italian.

However, it looks and sounds like it happened the other way round. I have never seen people behave like this on-screen before. Even those actors who are obviously speaking their mother tongue sound like they're partaking in a class reading of a play in English GCSE. They're not so much acting as – as – as – speaking? There's very little emphasis, and where it does exist it does so in all the wrong places. And turn-taking! Those characters who aren't speaking just sort of stand around, impassively waiting for their turn to speak. Sometimes, lines are accompanied by bizarre gestures and inexplicable embellishments.

Whilst watching, brow furrowed, I was wondering – where else have I seen “acting” like this? Then it hit me.

No, not porn. I was reminded of cutscenes from Japanese video games. Specifically, those that might be found on a Sega Dreamcast.

Argento, then, apart from anything else, revolutionised the acting tropes that would go on to punctuate many an early-3D survival horror. In more ways than one, you can trace a direct line from this to Resident Evil.

I wasn't put off, though. I mean, in terms of budding Argento fanboyism, the first-impressions were very, very good. This was the sort of film which followed its own highly skewed logic – like a very bad dream from which you don't quite feel like waking.

It featured a naughty trained grudge-bearing monkey, a swimming pool full of decaying corpses writhing in maggots, a deformed child rather perversely named after the deformity from which he suffers and, from nowhere, a deeply personal autobiographical moment from Mr. Argento concerning his mother's abandonment.

Are his films so revered because they're not like other films? Because this was not like other films. And I want more.