American Grindhouse (2010)

Director: Elijah Drenner

For some reason I’m greatly amused by the way this film about American exploitation cinema, or at any rate the DVD packaging of same, actually kind of operates the other way round from exploitation by not advertising any of its unexpectedly plentiful bonus features… including material shot a decade earlier for the original production, which a documentary solely about Jack Hill, the man Tarantino called “the Howard Hawks of exploitation filmmaking”.  Along the way, though, as Drenner and his crew accrued more interview footage, this was revised over the years into a general history of grindhouse, which I picked for tonight’s viewing cos it’s cult/expoitation/grindhouse challenge time at the ICM forum and I really should make an effort to actually take part, so hopefully this will inspire me some. Drenner’s particular approach is, I think, a good one, in that he looks beyond just the usual 60s/70s timeframe and considers how the exploiters of that period actually emerged from the exploiters of preceding decades (tracing exploitation as a tendency all the way back to Edison), looking at the tension that existed since the 30s between mainstream Hollywood and its less reputable counterpart and how the former’s gradual co-opting of the latter’s subject matter and techniques during the 70s eventually left it with nowhere to go. It’s a bit whistle-stop, in that it’s only 80 minutes long and it’s got to cover quite a lot of ground, with some of its individual topics really being worthy of feature-length expansion (and some of them having indeed been treated at such length), meaning it’s ultimately most useful as an introductory text for viewers not really familiar with the idea of exploitation film, let alone the films themselves, and I think it kind of skates over certain things it could’ve done more with (one limitation is there in the title, i.e. it’s specifically “American grindhouse”, with no real consideration of how foreign productions in that vein, especially the Italian giallo, played together with the American ones). Still, on that basic introductory text level, I suppose it generally does a decent job. Perfectly pleasant viewing.

The Lego Movie (2014)

Directors: Phil Lord & Christopher Miller

It’s… fast, isn’t it? Tears along at a speed that even the 21st century version of Doctor Who might consider indecent… Anyway, the challenge this month at the ICM forum is “animation”, so I decided to make this my first contribution to same in keeping with my plan to wipe some of the more recent titles in my backlog off it. It was a puzzling prospect when I first heard about it, much like The Social Network; if Facebook seemed an unlikely subject for a film, how much more bizarre did Lego sound? I know toy-driven cartoons are hardly new (I watched enough of them as a kid), but still… Anyway, much as The Social Network was unexpectedly hailed as a great work when it finally appeared, so was The Lego Movie; happily I reacted far better to the adventures of Emmet than I did Zuckerberg vs the Winklevii. Emmet is kind of the ultimate Everyman, or Everyfigure, a completely generic construction worker in the city of Bricksburg who inadvertently becomes mixed up in a battle to save the whole Lego universe from the machinations of benevolent (?) ruler President Business and his plan to unleash something called the “Kragle” upon it. As I said, this story is related at blinding speed—I remember being kind of shocked at one point to find only 12 minutes had passed and there were still about 85 minutes to go—which was a bit alarming at first (that was an awful lot more stuff that would be needed to fill 100 minutes) but is actually kind of referenced by the film itself and makes a certain sense, especially when it comes to the BIG TWIST (a sort of mix of Blazing Saddles and the end of St Elsewhere). Alas, the twist is kind of where the film falls down a bit and gives into the sort of sentiment it had hitherto managed to avoid or undercut. Actually, the overall message is a bit mixed, with the film’s libertarian leanings (that apparently gave that loon Glenn Beck a bit of a hard-on) and general attempt at being “subversive” being undermined somewhat by Emmet’s realisation that the Master Builders won’t get anywhere except by pulling together as a unit and following instructions, which is kind of, well. the opposite of what the film had been trying to say up to then. Still, it’s a fair deal of fun, and the consistent “Legofication” of everything results in some genuinely amazing visuals. Not surprised a sequel has been ordered, though I’m not sure I can envisage where they’ll take it…

The Raid 2 (2014)

Director: Gareth Evans

You may recall me being sufficiently blown away by The Raid that I knew I had to see both the sequel and Evans’ previous effort Merantau. The latter arrived in the post today, while the sequel was, obviously, tonight’s viewing. And yeah, part 2 does live up to the original, remarkably enough. Did it live up to expectations, though? That I’m not sure of. Certainly I don’t think it was quite as continuously excessive as part 1, although, having said that, that’s actually probably not a bad thing, cos when the violence does erupt it is inclined to be pretty hellacious (notably the prison riot, the choreography of which is quite something), especially once outright gang war erupts in the second half. If this film had hammered the viewer with almost non-stop violence (and I use the word “hammered” advisedly; one female gangster in the film literally takes a couple of hammers to the opposition) of that level, I don’t know if it would’ve been tolerable. Anyway, Evans has a somewhat bigger story this time; coming more or less straight off the end of the first Raid, Rama now finds himself drafted into undercover work, posing as a member of one of the biggest criminal gangs in town in order to bring down the corrupt police from the first film who’ve been working with said gang. There is, however, tension within the gang—the son of the leader getting fed up with the old man’s refusal to give him more power—and, of course, they’re hardly the only gang in town. Complications ensue, exceptionally violent ones at that. The plot is, to be sure, not hugely original, but that’s not the point anyway; if the story is kind of late 80s/early 90s Hong Kong crime thriller, the carnage is something even John Woo or Ringo Lam might’ve hesitated over. Remarkably, despite being just shy of 150 minutes long,The Raid 2 somehow never feels too draggy, it obviously feels long but never too much so. Quite an achievement in many and varied ways, this has now got me eager for the third installment, and kind of furious that it probably won’t be out for another three years at the earliest…

20,000 Days on Earth (2014)

Directors: Iain Forsyth & Jane Pollard

I’m filing this under both documentary and drama because I’m not really sure how else to do so. “Dramatised documentary” is probably the best description for it, but that opens up a range of questions that the film invites us to ask pretty much from the get go. Primarily, and most obviously, how much of the film actually IS “documentary”? To what extent is it actually a drama posing as documentary? How far is a documentary still a “documentary” if parts of it at least are staged in some way (and can documentary even avoid at least some degree of contrivance)? That’s a question Werner Herzog’s documentary career has kind of been built on, and we’ve been asking it at least since Nanook of the North, and it hangs over this film… Anyway, our subject is one Nicholas Edward Cave, you may know those bands he’s fronted over the last four decades; I’m admittedly not a mega-fan of Nick—I know, I’m a bad goth—and I wasn’t particularly enamoured of Push the Sky Away, the album he and the Bad Seeds are working on in the course of this film (though the songs sound better in the film somehow than I remember them doing on record). That said, Forsyth and Pollard’s handling of their subject is interesting whatever you make of Nick himself; much of the film is in the form of conversations between him and various people—a psychotherapist, actor Ray Winstone, Kylie Minogue, former Seed Blixa Bargeld (who’s… filled out a bit since he was in the band), current Seed Warren Ellis, and a group of archivists—which sounds like death but our directors manage to make it anything but, and of course that whole issue of “real vs staged” helps maintain interest (e.g. there’s photographic evidence of Tracy Pew beating up some German guy pissing on him on-stage, but what about the equally marvellous story of Nick’s teenage transvestism? Did that really happen?). Cave says a couple of things about living for performance and the desire to transform himself into something he wasn’t, and those two statements kind of underpin the whole film and leave us to question the “Nick Cave” we see throughout it; if there’s no definite answer by the end, the journey is still a fun one. Plus Warren Ellis plays a Microkorg at several points, and that always wins me over to an artist…

Kung Fury (2015)

Director: David Sandberg

“Sounds like somebody’s living in the past! Contemporise, man!” OK, so I’m taking the advice of that hippy character from The Simpsons and coming up to date for once—so much so, in fact, that this thing premiered at Cannes just on the 22nd of last month; it’s now handily available on Youtube (yes, for once I’m actually reviewing something I acquired legitimately from YT). I didn’t see the trailer director and star Sandberg apparently made to support the Kickstarter program that funded this amazing short (though I have seen the David Hasselhoff music video that accompanies the film and it is… well, yes, it is indeed), but it must’ve been effective; looking to raise $200,000, he actually wound up raising nearly three times that amount, which I suppose shows you just how far you can go with crowd-funding if you know what you’re doing… The film itself? 31 minutes of joy. I tend to be wary of overt “cult” films, I dislike that sort of self-consciousness in film, but Sandberg gets it right by just going for maximum balls-out ridiculousness. The premise is, it’s 1985, and Miami-based supercop Kung Fury finds Adolf Hitler, the “Kung Führer” has time-travelled from Nazi Germany into the future, meaning Kung Fury must time-travel back there to prevent him causing future havoc. Complications, obviously, ensue. Basically, Kung Fury is a riot of 80s references (including video tracking errors), right down to Hasselhoff’s closing credits song; Sandberg clearly and rightly realised that if he was going to make a film with such a silly premise then the execution needed to be completely ludicrous too, and the magnificently blatant fakeness of the CGI/green-screen stuff really sets the tone. I’m not too surprised to learn a feature-length version is in the works, although I don’t envy Sandberg having to try and maintain this sort of madness for a full 90 minutes or whatever; the 31 minutes of this short already feel like a whole feature has been compressed into them, so much is going on. Still, if he can pull off a full-length Kung Fury film anywhere near as good as the short version, I’ll be all for it…

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)

Director: Sergio Leone

Goddamn, no wonder I wasn’t enamoured of Leone’s films back in the days of VHS when I last saw them, they just don’t work that way. I don’t regret the investment in HD editions of them at all, especially after seeing this again (and it’s not like they were hugely expensive anyway). If For a Few Dollars More saw Leone leaping ahead from his first western, GB&U represents a further jump, and probably a more successful one in that some of the things I think he was trying to do in the earlier film, he actually succeeds at pulling off here. Such as the feeling of epic; the considerably greater length (178 minutes) doesn’t feel as long as the 130 minutes of FFDM sometimes did. In some ways, this is actually a kind of small story: basically, it’s three men on a quest for hidden riches. It’s just that, well, there are a couple of complications: the exact knowledge of where said riches are hidden are split between them (two know the money’s in a cemetery but not in which grave; one knows the grave but not which cemetery), and it’s also the middle of the American civil war. Indeed’s Leone’s introduction of the period setting and his gradual building on it as our “heroes” become mixed up in it in varying ways is one of the most fascinating things about the film. It’s a big backdrop, but Leone is totally in charge of it. Clint Eastwood is more “Clint” than ever, and Eli Wallach and Lee Van Cleef are able co-leads; all three bring just the right degree of black humour to the proceedings. And, of course, the whole thing is topped off by one of Ennio Morricone’s most iconic scores; “Ecstasy of Gold” in particular has always been a favourite piece of music, but seeing the visuals that accompany it as Tuco races around the cemetery makes it even more thrilling and moving. Hugely enjoyable stuff, and one of the most successful revisits I’ve had to a film I hadn’t seen in years for a very long time.

For a Few Dollars More (1965)

Director: Sergio Leone

Now my records indicate I have seen this—I would’ve done so most likely in ’95 when I was doing film studies at UNSW and that particular class on film genres, wherein we studied the western and Fistful of Dollars was one of the films we looked at, and I do recall watching the rest of the “Dollars trilogy” and OUATIW as additional viewing—but damned if I could remember anything about it, other than the fact of having seen it some 20 years ago, so this was one of those rewatches that may as well be a first viewing… Anyway, a few days after I recently rewatched Fistful, ABC wheeled out this one late at night, but it was a pan/scanned print and I knew that wasn’t going to pass muster, so I invested in a proper digital edition for tonight’s viewing. This was clearly the right decision, cos more than a few of cinematographer Massimo Dallamano’s compositions (this being one of his last films in that job) would’ve suffered terribly from being cropped (even more so than in Fistful). This time Clint’s man with no name has a name, albeit one that no one’s entirely sure of apparently, and he’s kind of partnered with Lee Van Cleef as an army colonel turned bounty hunter; both of them find themselves in pursuit of the same criminal with a high price on his head, though for one of them the money isn’t the main attraction. The scene in which the two meet kind of sums the film up in some ways, taciturn hard men being taciturn and hard while letting their weaponry do the talking; if you ever thought guns acted as a kind of penis substitute, well, this scene is an outstanding bit of dick-swinging. Leone has clearly progressed from Fistful, and the film exudes a feeling of much greater confidence; he was clearly unafraid to let the film carry on with longish stretches of minimal to no dialogue. If the film does feel a bit self-conscious in some of its moves, and if in the end it’s perhaps slightly longer than necessary, it was still very pleasing to revisit; at least now I know what happens in it…

Django Unchained (2012)

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Dear Quentin: never attempt an Australian accent ever again. I know you love our genre films from decades gone by, but, shit.

Anyway, you may or may not have noticed (or care) that’s it’s been westerns all round this month, cos that’s this month’s ICM forum challenge… as such I decided it was time to venture into a modern example of same. Of course, these days they don’t make ’em like they used to, and indeed Tarantino’s apparent inspiration was more in the line of the spaghetti western rather than the classical model—although I don’t think either variant used the word “nigger” to quite the extent this film does. The choice of language was one of the film’s sore points for many people (the violence being the other), although I suppose it has the dubious virtue of probably being in keeping with the period (just before the US civil war); the violence, of course, well that’s Quentin’s thing, isn’t it? Actually, the film’s real problems are the music (frequently incongruous at best), the godawful pacing—really, I see no good reason why this had to be 165 minutes long—and the sometimes confused tone. I mean, the scene with the proto-Klansmen bitching about being unable to see out their hoods is golden, but it’s in the wrong film, this isn’t the comedy that scene should’ve been in. Most of the other moments of comparative levity seemed ill-judged too. As I do believe I’ve said before, Tarantino kind of lost me with the first Kill Bill, and I don’t think he’s fully won me back yet; there’s a really good two-hour film in here if someone could convince him to tighten about 30-40 minutes out of it. That said, he apparently has said he did cut about 90 minutes from his first edit, and has said he could envisage it as a four-hour film or miniseries. And I actually could kind of see it as the latter; I know everyone says long-form TV is the way ahead for drama these days, and for once I can see that idea working in this case. Maybe one series of seven episodes or something to see more of Django and Schultz’s bounty hunting adventures as they go in search of Broomhilda. Maybe if Django Unchained were delivered in that form, the pacing issues at least could be resolved somewhat…

High Plains Drifter (1973)

Director: Clint Eastwood

Obviously Clint was going to tackle a western at some point in his directorial career, and this was his first such film… unlike our last film, I kind of went into this one without as much positive anticipation; I first and last saw this probably some time in the late 90s, and liked it but was not hugely blown away. Having felt a bit let down by Rio Bravo on revisiting it, I was hoping I might have a better experience with HPD… and I’m not sure that I did, although I’ll say this much for it, it may be a slow burner like the earlier film but I had a somewhat greater sense of it all building up to something. That “something” is pretty fucking nasty, too; my old VHS of it was still rated R when I got it back in the day, and though it’s been rated down to M in more recent times… yeah.  If Eastwood’s latest man-with-no-name figure strikes terror into the good (?) townsfolk of Lago by his mere arrival there, his rather casual shooting of three men not long thereafter followed by the rape of one of the local women establishes the film as something hard and nasty; this is a hell of a putative hero. Clint himself is at his most muttering as the possibly supernatural figure (arguable; according to Wikipedia it kind of depends on which language you see the film in) on a quest for vengeance, coming to yet another corrupt western town (with almost everyone having been complicit to some degree in the pretty horrendous act he’s there to avenge) of the sort we’ve seen a few times so far this month and literally painting it red. Grim stuff, and such humour as there is tends to be kind of bleak; I’d actually kind of forgotten just how dark the thing really is. I still can’t say I’m bowled over by High Plains Drifter—it’s another one of those “good but not that good” films on the 1001 Movies list for me—but at least it was nice to actually see it in widescreen at last if nothing else…

Rio Bravo (1959)

Director: Howard Hawks

This was one I was looking forward to revisiting tonight, cos I recall having liked it a lot whenever I last saw it (early noughts). And, well, yeah, I… kind of didn’t like it so much tonight. I noted in my review of Silver Lode how High Noon… influenced that film, shall we say, and it influenced this one too, in the other direction; John Wayne (who apparently got offered the Will Kane role first but refused it because he supported the HUAC blacklist) and Howard Hawks were so disgruntled by it that they made this as a response… appalled by Zinnemann’s presentation of a sheriff begging for help and needing others to back him up, they instead went for a sheriff surrounded by so much help he can afford to refuse offers of it. It’s a classically “Hawks” macho set-up, which the DVD commentary compares to a family, Wayne the patriarch, Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson as the “sons”, Walter Brennan as the somewhat eccentric “uncle” perhaps… and, of course, Angie Dickinson as the somewhat token female who is, in her own way, as manly as the actual men. (The bromance is still more interesting than the romance.) Yet on this rewatch, I was kind of surprised by how relatively little happens in the 135 minutes Rio Bravo craps on for, which is possibly an odd thing to say given how many subplots it has, but it’s kind of light on action for the most part… and that was a bit of a problem for me, cos when you consider the actual narrative situation—sheriff has a local rancher locked up for murdering someone, the latter’s rather wealthy brother hires assorted scum to blockade the town and menace the sheriff so he can’t get out of the place—I was a bit surprised by how little tension it generated. The whole thing just felt plodding, although the commentary notes the slow pace is actually usually considered one of its selling points, letting Hawks have time to digress and build character relationships. And, yeah, he does that… I just felt he could’ve done it more tightly and at rather less length. Disappointed.

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