Directors: Chuck Jones & Phil Monroe
Look, I know there isn’t much point in me watching this. I’ve got the big DVD box set with all the original cartoons on it (barring, notably, Hare-Way to the Stars, incomprehensibly excluded from the Golden Collection series) remastered and uncut (the editing performed here on Long-Haired Hare damages one of the best gags in it). It’s kind of outlived its usefulness in some respects, and there’s not a lot of point to watching it now, unless you really want to be faintly disgusted by the absence of Bob Clampett and Ben Hardaway among the list of Bugs’ “fathers” (the latter—who only gave the bunny his name, after all—seems to have been an honest mistake on Jones’ part, but the former was a deliberate act of spite by Jones, who had a notable grudge against him). And yet, when I was looking through the TV guide to see what was on today and I saw TBB/RRM listed there… how could I not watch it? Cos it’s great. The component parts are all great, some of them among the very best things to come from Warners’ animation department (and I’ve said for a long time now that the best of the Warner cartoons are among the best films made by anyone anywhere at any time), and it’s still a pretty amazing highlights package, markedly better than the other recycled compilations that followed it in the 80s, cos Jones and Monroe were careful to (mostly) leave the originals alone and limit the new material to essentially introductory links rather than trying to embed the old stuff as stock footage into a new story (cf. 1001 Rabbit Tales). I’ve loved this since I was little, and it still works for me now. It’s a joy to watch, basically, and I suppose that’s really all the reason you need to do so.
Director: Mike Mendez
Apparently this film’s distributors wanted to retitle it as Mega Spider, but director Mendez fought to keep his preferred title—exclamation mark and all—on the grounds that it was the “right” one. And that logic is hard to argue with, since Big Ass Spider! really is the right one; indeed, the exclamation mark is what makes it so. As with Zombeavers, the title sums up what’s on offer, in this case a MOTHERFUCKING BIG BUG running rampant… and yeah, I know I’ve spoken before about my, er, issues with the descendants of Arachne, but in this case we’re kind of in Horrors of Spider Island territory, where the beast is so patently not real (albeit not as unrealistic as in the older film) that it didn’t trigger the same sort of AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAGH! response from me that a real one would do. In this case, the spider is an unfortunate side effect of an experiment in using growth hormones from alien biological material to create bigger and better food to solve world hunger; in short, not unlike Tarantula except played far more for comedy. Our hero is a kind of schlubby everyman, a pest exterminator called Alex who finds himself investigating an apparent big spider at a hospital and who finds it’s actually a lot worse than anyone realises. Alex and his ethnic comedy stereotype sidekick have to find a way to squish this thing, and fast, cos she’s growing exponentially and she’s got eggs to lay… Indeed, the astounding speed with which the initially smallish bug becomes big ass is kind of matched by the storytelling; it’s not done in “real time”, but it certainly doesn’t drag its feet in getting down to business, and all is admirably over and done with in 80 minutes or so. Unabashedly B, marred by particularly shitty CGI gore, but quite a fun watch.
Directors: Jemaine Clement & Taika Waititi
There was news a few days ago about this becoming a TV series, and somehow I wasn’t surprised to hear it; having actually seen the film now, I find myself even less surprised. I wouldn’t go so far as to say the film acts like a series pilot as I said about Megaforce the other day, cos it is pretty self-contained and doesn’t feel like it’s trying to be that. And yet, watching it, I couldn’t help but feel it’d actually work better in serial form. The premise is splendid, a documentary crew (who remain offscreen) follow a group of vampires (two of them played by the directors) who live together in a flat in Wellington, with complications ensuing when one turns a prospective meal into another vampire who then brings a human mate with him when they go on their nocturnal adventures, and who makes the even bigger mistake of, you know, actually telling people he’s a vampire. The film is pretty episodic and not really narrative-driven as such; it’s far more about the characters, and the characters are terrific, not just our three leads but the secondary ones as well… particularly the werewolves (“not swearwolves!”), who I can imagine being bigger parts in the TV version. There is much charm to it, a lot of fun to be had with the genre tropes (the vampires struggling to be invited into nightclubs, the werewolves dealing with practicalities like what clothes to wear at transformation time) and some fairly simple but great effects (e.g. when Nick starts turning into a vampire and his reflection in the bathroom mirror is out of sync with him). Going to be very interested to see how the TV version pans out.
Director: Jordan Rubin
It was Tim at Antagony’s kind of glowing review that made me reconsider this one. Cos I’d seen the DVD on the shelves at my local JB Hifi and, you know, naturally assumed it had to be shit. You would, wouldn’t you? But Tim being into it made me think “hmm, must be something to it after all”, and so I bought it. I liked the fact that it was inexpensive, and I appreciated it being under 80 minutes long. And, well, yeah, it actually was worth whatever I paid for it, perfect for a Saturday afternoon. It’s… high-concept, to say the least. The title tells you absolutely fucking everything about the film; there’s no metaphor or subtext or poetry, it’s about beavers turned into undead horrors by chemical waste. You know EXACTLY what you’re in for, and the film delivers on its absurd premise with a kind of trashy magnificence. The impressive thing is that it’s quite watchable despite almost none of the human characters being particularly likeable, which is usually a sticking point for me, but they go about being unlikeable with some verve that’s kind of winning. Obviously this is not a film about which a lot really needs to be said—I direct you to Tim’s review above for more analysis if you want it—but it’s appealing in its low-budget ludicrousness and in the joy it takes in its own silliness, and especially the brevity with which it goes about its business: quick set-up, introduce characters and setting, sic zombie beavers on them, all over and done with in 77 minutes including credits and post-film bloopers. That sort of efficiency is something worth learning from.
Director: Brian Trenchard-Smith
After that bit of faux Trenchard-Smith the other night, let’s have the real thing now, and one that could actually benefit from a modern remake… You know how they say you should never remake a film unless it wasn’t up to much in the first place and could potentially be improved upon? Deathcheaters is exactly the sort of thing they mean. Very cheap (apparently $150,000-odd, which was certainly worth something in 1976 but still not a lot), very cheerful, fairly cheesy, and potentially an enormous hit if given to the right people to redo. TS says in the DVD commentary he set out to make what he describes as a “whimsical” film, an action comedy that’d be family-friendly (indeed, the film succeeded in scoring a G rating, as opposed to the R rating Man from Hong Kong earned the previous year), with a sort of semi-camp tone of the sort you found in TV programs like The Avengers. I think it’s fair to say this intention does come through in the finished product, in spite of, let’s be honest, a number of problems, the biggest of which is probably the opening chase (jumping from Kurnell to Northbridge to Warringah Mall) and the abseiling down the Hilton Hotel; it makes for such a good opening 20 minutes or so the rest of the film can’t really live up to it. Plus, although it does tick along at a fair enough pace, the film does take longer than necessary to get to the point—our two heroes (Grant Page and John Hargreaves), Vietnam vets turned stuntmen, are hired by a mysterious government figure (Noel Ferrier) to “acquire” certain papers belonging to a Filipino crime lord—and nowhere near enough on the mission (we never actually see said crime lord or really know much about him). And at the time there seems to have been some fuss over TS using actual Vietnam War stock footage in a couple of flashback scenes when the war was still, you know, a fresh memory. Still, it’s kind of fun, kind of charming, and the film communicates the enjoyment the people making it clearly had; plus the original will always have one advantage over any putative remake, namely the 70s fashion… that shirt Page wears at one point with the gigantic puffy sleeves is as jaw-dropping as the stunt work.
Director: Shion Sono
I haven’t seen a film this ludicrous in I don’t know how long, and for the most part I do mean that in a good way. Don’t know that much about Shion Sono, but a two-hour film seemed like an easier way in than a four-hour one like Love Exposure (which I’ve had for years but never found time to watch), so I went here. Surprisingly complicated to sum up, but broadly I suppose you could call it a yakuza film about filmmaking. It starts out more or less as the story of a young group of guerilla filmmakers who call themselves the Fuck Bombers, shooting on 8mm and always dreaming of the day when the god of cinema will look kindly on them and send a big break their way. Fast forward 10 years, though, and they’re still dreaming… But then we start focusing more on the yakuza, with two gangs about to go ballistic, and with one of the gang leaders more preoccupied with making a film starring his daughter. Suddenly the Fuck Bombers are about to have a 35mm massacre to shoot…
That just summarises events without really describing how they actually play out; narratively it’s quite dense stuff that takes some time and effort to untangle, and I’ve said nothing about the advertising jingle that recurs throughout cos, frankly, I don’t know how to describe it. As I said, there’s something ludicrous about the entire thing, and the film knows it; basically it’s an extremely warped comedy that’s fairly self-aware and plays for its laughs accordingly, with digital “blood” in the climactic carnage whose deliberate blatantness is kind of magnificent, and a riotous clash of acting styles. I can actually kind of envisage Jean-Luc Godard making a film like this 50 years earlier, though somehow I can’t imagine it being as much fun as this. Or as batshit.
Director: Arthur Hiller
Arthur Hiller died a couple of weeks ago after a lengthy and somewhat variable career, and so, out of sheer perversity, I’ve been driven to finally hunt down possibly his most notorious film. It’s another film about film-making (seen a few of those lately, haven’t I), this one turning on one of Hollywood’s most infamous non-figures… “Alan Smithee” was the name the Director’s Guild of America used when a director wanted their name taken off a film cos of studio interference or whatever, and though one of the conditions of being allowed to use it was that the director was supposed not to talk about “Smithee” really being them, he was pretty much an open secret (I’d first heard of “Smithee” via Reader’s Digest, I think, a long time before this film). So the great idea was had to make a film about a director actually called Alan Smithee (played by Eric Idle) who hates the horrible action film he’s making, but he can’t take his name off it cos, you know, Alan Smithee is his real name…
The crowning irony, of course, would be that Hiller would have his own name replaced by “Smithee” after conflicts with writer Joe Eszterhas, and the whole thing seems to have been remembered as one of the great Hollywood fiascos (Idle was apparently scathing about it in promotional interviews). Hence I was kind of amazed to find that, well, it’s not actually that bad. Not actually that good as such either, of course, but not really the catastrophe I’d expected. To be honest, the central conceit only really works if you know the story behind “Smithee”—the film doesn’t actually play this up as much as it perhaps should’ve done—and the mockumentary form of the thing probably wasn’t the best way to tell the story. For all its problems, though, I actually did find myself kind of amused by the thing in spite of myself, and perhaps even in spite of the film; Roger Ebert’s zero-star review enumerates what he saw as its many problems, and it’s hard to entirely disagree (he’s right about how good Harvey Weinstein of all people is). I laughed at it a number of times anyway. Take that however you like.
Directors: Ethan & Joel Coen
Given the Coens are kind of students of Hollywood history, you’d think they might’ve known widescreen filming hadn’t yet been invented in 1951 when this film is set… and yes, that is the sort of anachronism I notice when I don’t notice others, and apparently this film has plenty; the IMDB goofs page does note some of them are probably intentional to highlight how shoddy the film-within-the-film is, but I don’t know what their excuse for premature VistaVision is…
Anyway, I’ve previously established I’m not particularly a Coens fan, and I desperately hoped this would change that, because it’s built on such a good idea, and it starts so well… and, well, it then just never lives up to the promise of that opening. It’s another Coens film about filmmaking, set in a fictional (but meant to be MGM) Hollywood studio, overseen by “fixer” Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin, playing a fictional version of an apparently real person), who has to sort out a variety of issues, like a female star falling pregnant while unmarried, strange casting changes demanded by head office, trashy gossip columnists threatening to expose the studio’s main star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney looking unexpectedly, well, old)… and the kidnapping of said star in the middle of making Hail Caesar, the aforementioned film-within-the film, by a group of Communists. This is such a good set-up that I’m damned if I can understand why the end result wasn’t funnier… it’s like the Coens got cold feet somewhere along the way and were afraid to go for the full screwball treatment the story was so desperately calling for. It has good moments (the musical number is probably the highlight) and individual good bits, but on the whole, just another Coens film to leave me cold and baffled. Damned if I can understand the critical acclaim for this film, which I suppose sums up my relation with Ethan & Joel generally…
Director: H.C. Potter
I’ve wanted to see this ever since I read about it in my old Illustrated History of Cinema (Robinson & Lloyd) about, what, 25 years ago, which promised an “extraordinarily zany” “anything for a laugh extravaganza”. But actually getting my hands on it has been another matter… there actually was a local DVD release here in the early 00’s, but it was an Avenue One job and I knew that apparently everything they touched turned to shit, so I let it go… But! with the technological miracle of unlimited ADSL and, er, an online source of doubtful legality, I now have Hellzapoppin’ in my virtual hands. And all I’ll say is fucking hell, what was in the water at Universal’s comedy department in 1941? Just a few months earlier they’d unleashed Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, and then this, which impressively out-loons even Mr Fields’ masterwork (to which this actually bears certain similarities).
Hellzapoppin’ the film is kind of about the adaptation of the then-legendary Broadway hit of the same name into a film; crucially, the credits only say that the play “suggested” the film, which, from what I can gather, doesn’t resemble the play that much (it may indeed have even been unfilmable as such). After the jaw-dropping opening in Hell, what ensues is surely one of the strangest “putting on a show” musicals ever made. Stars Olsen & Johnson are tasked with helping a young composer stage a musical revue he wants to launch on Broadway; in the midst of this they also have to help the course of young love run properly, which, after a series of misunderstandings, they eventually decide will actually require them to sabotage the thing instead. Along the way there is a remarkable amount of fourth-wall breaking, reflexivity and all that, and if one of the jokes was lifted from certain Warners cartoons of the late 30s, Chuck Jones would steal one from this film years later in Duck Amuck. It’s ludicrous, surreal, kind of berserk, and if anything the description in the Robinson & Lloyd book almost undersells the thing. Stunning.
Director: Mel Brooks
Mel Brooks himself has characterised this as not his funniest film (he considers that to be Blazing Saddles with The Producers not far behind) but the one that was best written and best made. On re-examination after a lot of years (hadn’t seen this since I was in high school, probably around 1988 or 89), that strikes me as an astute and accurate observation. Having had a megahit with Blazing Saddles, another classic Hollywood genre parody/homage must’ve seemed in order, and his star Gene Wilder came up with the very thing while they were still making that film: an update of Frankenstein where the good doctor’s descendant is appalled by his ancestor’s antics but finds himself drawn into carrying on the old boy’s work. This could, obviously, have been played straight, it’s a decent pulp horror plot, but this is Mel Brooks we’re talking about…
Of course, the most striking thing about the film was that he insisted on shooting in black and white, which was a sticking point for the Hollywood studios who didn’t do that any more by 1974 (it was kind of like Chaplin making Modern Times a silent film in 1936); but he was right to insist on it, cos Young Frankenstein is one of the most beautiful black and white films I’ve ever seen. Outstanding photography of incredible sets (enhanced marvellously by the original lab gear from the 1931 Frankenstein). And yet I think Brooks is right in calling it not his funniest film, cos as well-made as it is, it’s not as continuously laugh out loud as Blazing Saddles was. It’s hugely clever, but it turns more on the strength of Wilder’s performance in particular than anything else. And that’s fine, of course; if it’s not as funny (nor as generally good) as its immediate predecessor, it’s still greatly entertaining, there’s a lot of affection for the genre (and specific films) it’s satirising, and in an age when so few filmmakers manage even one film per year, it’s kind of amazing to look back and see one not only putting out two films in one year, with both of them also among his best work.