Thursday, 27 June 2013

Xanadu (1980)

Kira makes an unexpected appearance on an LP cover
Xanadu!  This lively 1980 romance features ample disco music by notable artists, but was until lately mentioned on Wikipedia's list of Films Considered the Worst Ever. So what's wrong with it?  Is it really bad, or just 'so bad it's good'?

There's certainly a division to be made there. 'Plan 9 From Outer Space' (1959) is often counted as a 'so bad its good' campy classic, but in fact is poorly wrought and, worse, boring.  It's considerably more entertaining to watch 1994's 'Ed Wood' and imagine what 'Plan 9' might be like than struggle through the thing. A film needs at least a base level of good, clear storytelling to be worth the watching.

Gene Kelly enjoys a mirror.  'Xanadu' would love to be 'Singin' in the Rain' (1952)
'Xanadu' is not a boring film, so most of its other quirks are excusable, at least when watching for corny entertainment.  'Not boring' probably ought to be qualified.  The plot is very, very slight.  In short (which is to say, in full), a heavenly muse (Olivia Newton-John) comes down to inspire two guys (Michael Beck and Gene Kelly) to open a 1940s/1980s-crossover-themed roller disco.  She and the hairier of the blokes fall in love, which is forbidden.  It's a musical, but the songs really have no impact on the story, and serve mainly to make up the duration. When a song starts, so does a dance sequence, lasting for at least three minutes even where there are no more than twenty seconds of choreographical innovation.  The greatest of these sequences, by some margin, entails shop-window dummies coming alive and jiving in a variety of costumes while Gene Kelly tries on different glitzy outfits.  It's like 'Spearhead from Space' and 'Time and the Rani' together in the same sandwich.

Mercifully most of the songs, and at least one of the dances, are amply entertaining to sustain the viewer. The Electric Light Orchestra, who had completed their move from prog to disco with the previous year's 'Discovery' here contribute five songs, all of which I have on 45s somewhere about.  There's also a duet between Cliff Richard and Olivia-Newton John (O.B.E.), which is unexciting by comparison but is set over a charmingly laughable sequence of images; and an ON-J solo piece, 'Suspended in Time', which I fast-forwarded through.  In it, the muse stands in a flamboyantly boring set and sings the song, without incident, dance, or so much as a change of shot.  The most static performance in a movie musical since 'Climb Every Mountain', and is a work of lesser merit.

Kira in... Muse land?  Heaven?  Valhalla?  The Eighties?

The film has a strong message, but doesn't illustrate it very well.  It wants to tell us that you should live for your art, and if your employer is telling you to cut out your artistic flair and work efficiently for cash you should resign on the spot and go forth to make beautiful things.  In actuality, the painter who resigns to chase his muse ends up co-owner of a disco, which isn't really what he wanted, and seems to leave him as a businessman rather than an artistic innovator.  Perhaps the message is that when you fall in love you can give up on all your other dreams as they'll no longer matter, but that's not a very nice message at all.

It's an unusually relaxing watch, since it's almost wholly devoid of conflict. The film is a long sequence of things turning out ok, with only a fairly slight and dramatically unsatisfying attempt to build up tension towards the end as a disembodied Zeus attempts to forbid Kira and Sonny from loving one another in anything but the most distant and platonic fashion.  When the end comes it doesn't feel triumphal.  ON-J sings 'Xanadu', the title song and the best, but the film fails to end.  More music comes, and with it more dancing.

It's a fun film, and I can see why it has its dubious reputation yet continues to be watched.  Nobody in the production team seems to have looked at the dances and set-pieces and asked themselves whether they're good enough for inclusion in the film, and so a story about true artistic inspiration embarrasses itself by being tacky and bizarre.  It's implied that 'Xanadu', the roller-disco of the title, is an artistic achievement to rival Shakespeare or Mozart.  The film, however, isn't.

P.S. Saskia's verdict on 'Xanadu': you might like it more than 'Zardoz' (1974).  It's so, so inoffensive and friendly.

P.P.S. Roller-discos look cool but I can't imagine many drew in enough punters to sustain themselves - at least not once the seventies were over.

The film and the title track, if you can be tempted

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Scream (1996) and Cabin in the Woods (2011)

With the arrival of a new lodger, so Netflix has entered my life.  Suddenly it's possible and convenient to watch films that neither Saskia nor I had deliberately sought out for our collections.  So it was that, when it became apparent I had seen neither 'Scream' (1996) nor 'Cabin in the Woods' (2011) we simply dialled them up and watched 'em.

They're both horror films which know they're horror films, where the characters know the conventions of the genre, and the audience are credited with some intelligence in this area too, meaning the movie can get on with something slightly more complex and interesting than a creeping tension studded with deaths.

An enjoyably quizzical stuffed wolf-head, in the cabin in the woods
We saw 'Cabin in the Woods' first.  It's written by Joss Whedon, who helmed 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' and its ilk, so the characters are well-drawn, genuinely funny and memorable.  As to postmodern horror, it sets out its stall clearly and enjoyably during its opening titles, which begin by showing the credits over murky images of bloodish hell before a deliberately jarring cut to the ever-enjoyable Bradley Whitman in a government office - so suddenly that I thought for a moment the television had jumped a track and started showing us a different film.  He and a colleague banter for a while before the film's title crashes in over them and we jump to the 'normal' start of the film, the introduction of the doomed teens in all their Scooby-doo glory.

From the off it's clear that it isn't just a story of teens going on holiday and being killed by monsters and villains, as per 'The Evil Dead' (1981) or 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre' (1974, 2003).  That's how it may seem to the victims, but there's a sci-fi underground base in the James Bond tradition operating their fantasy horror, pulling the strings and apparently making a real-life horror film - but to what end?  Not only do we get the traditional fight of ordinary people against zombies, we also follow the mystery of why this is happening.  What could have been a twist at the end is given quite freely from the start, and we're left with the suggestion that many or all supernatural horrors are actually being manipulated in the same way.

A tutorial on what you must never do in a horror film
'Scream' is a serial-killer film directed by Wes Craven who a decade earlier wrote and directed 'Nightmare on Elm Street' (1984).  Here, the masked villain, the anonymous Ghostface, is well aware that he's in a horror film - or rather, he knows horror films and knows what's expected of him, and knows that his victims will have seen horror films too and will know the score.  The high-school students who make up the large cast of potential victims know their horror movies, and when it becomes apparent that there's a murderer preying on their peers many of them react just as churlishly and delightedly as real people would, dressing up as the killer and watching all the more horror, and intellectualising about the killer's his likely motivations.  Like 'Madhouse' (1974) it's a horror movie about horror movies, but more credible on all fronts and considerably more intelligent.

Both films show a real understanding of horror - how and why it works.  They enquire into two very different sides of the genre - the monster horror of zombie films and the slasher subgenre made famous by 'Psycho' (1960) - and manage to exposit on the genre conventions while remaining genuinely scary (though, as 15-certificate films, not horribly so), as well as fun and enjoyable.

I suspect Saskia's presence here means more horror will be on its way to The Penciltonian's pages, though I feel we've been spoilt by these two movies and by 'Bucket of Blood' (1959), which as the first horror film to make substantial use of comedy was similarly innovative.

Says Saskia, this is the most 90s screen-cap possible - a scream mask and some Romantica.
'What's Romantica?' I hear you ask.  'Think of Viennetta / But a cake and better'

P.S. Ghostface asks his victims 'what's your favourite scary movie?'.  I've no idea what my answer would be to that.  I like 'The Wicker Man' (1973), which is a horror but isn't really scary.  Of the films I've Penciltoned at you and not already mentioned in this post, it might well be 'Jurassic Park'.  It doesn't quite fit the genre, but those dragons are terrifying!  Though it's a documentary I'll venture 'Häxan' (1922) too, as the Devil's first appearance in it is so sudden and alarming that I almost toppled from my sofa with fright.

P.P.S. I feel compelled to give another tenuous link between films: 'Scream' and 'Brick' (2005) feature a school principal and a vice-principal respectively, each played by a cool 1970s hero, The Fonz in the former, Shaft in the latter.  What further inducement could you need to watch these fine films?

Despite my earlier advocacy of Netflix, here's some optical media for y'all.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Dr. Who and the Daleks (1965)

So close you can feel their fire!
In the mid-sixties, Amicus Productions (whose 'Madhouse' I reviewed for 1974) made two thrilling and exceedingly full-colour films based on a sci-fi TV show called 'Doctor Who', which had been on our screens for less than two years at the time.  By the time I came to be aware of films, these two were being screened at least once annually on television, and though they weren't 'proper' Doctor Who, they were, until 2005, the most ubiquitous stories on British television.  They're the perfect Sunday afternoon films - bright, exciting family adventures, starring Peter Cushing, not as the Doctor, but as eccentric inventor Dr. Who.

The thrill, here, is Daleks IN COLOUR.  They are, if you're curious, silver, blue, red, black, gold, and then some more silver.  The Dalek city is a horrid combination of silver, salmon and pastel blue - not by any means my favourite colour-scheme.  Despite horrid choices of tincture, I love the design of the set, especially the big rotating control panel, and the sliding doors which swing open triagonally with a swoosh and a clash.  They stuck in my mind as a child, and I was glad to see and hear them again

Roberta Tovey and the Lava-lamps of the Daleks!
The Thals, too, are in colour.  These ineffectual aryan pacifists are rendered here as blond, eye-shadowed fellows with waistcoats designed to show off the bare and hairless chests.  I'm tempted to say it's an effeminate look, with elfin boots, tight trousers and well-tended eyelashes, but it's probably truer to say Thal culture dresses its men and women equally, with everybody's curvature given equal acknowledgement.

It seems reasonable enough to inspect the pictures rather than the story.  The plot, after all, had been on telly just two years previously.  The Daleks (who are a bit rubbish here, despite their big budget sheen) do the things they did (and don't yet shout 'exterminate'), and the heroes go through an array of adventurous set-pieces.  Peter Cushing's Dr Who is extremely enjoyable, despite being entirely unlike Hartnell and equally unlike Cushing's usual display.  Ian, in this version, is played by ROY CASTLE, a performer I admire extremely vocally, and gets all the comedy scenes - sitting on the wrong things, leaning on the wrong things, falling over and being affably flabbergasted in a way that continues to amuse me.

Arghhh!  It's a... a Magnedon?  They never really tell us.
It's a broader comedy than in television version, but doesn't undermine the drama, such as it is.  I love the scene where Ian tries (which much in the way of hilarious antics) to open a door which closes every time he approaches it, intercut with Barbara venturing into the city as, silently and unnoticed, panels slide down to cut off her retreat.  Sliding doors and CCTV cameras ("Every move you make, they can see!  Every sound you utter, they can hear!") are the bizarre innovations of the future, set against the ordinary travelling phone-booth of the present.

Here, as in the original, the most exciting scene is the one where everybody jumps over the Very Deep Chasm.  It's wonderfully exciting in both TV and film versions, without being quite believable in either.  In short, Ian, Barbara and two Thals have to jump over a ravine.  It's just about possible, and for safety, as one person jumps, they do so with a rope around their waist connected to one of their fellows, lest they should fall.  Ian, Barbara and Ganatus jump across safely, but the cowardly Antodus, who is terrified that he'll never make it, lands badly and topples into the ravine, his rope dragging Ian over the brink of disaster.  On television, Antodus finally grows brave, and cuts the rope, letting himself fall to his death that Ian might be saved.  He seems to do the same here, except that a short few seconds later we discover that he hasn't given up his life to save a stranger - rather he has fallen onto a ledge, and is perfectly fine.  This film version which can never let itself be horrific or unsettling, and where all is colourful and safe.  It's a pity, as the best Dalek stories are full of death, with victory coming at a miserably high cost.  At least it all ends with a big explosion!

P.S. Says Dr. Who: 'The Daleks have the entire city surrounded by electronic instruments'.  I envisaged the place haloed by keytars, a Bontempi organ and perhaps the odd Roland Electric Piano.

P.P.S. I'm sure I'll get to the far more exciting sequel in a few weeks.

Now out on Blu-ray, and the second film, at least, is just amazing.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Two very eighties post-Nuke movies with years in their titles (1983, 1986)

So far as I can ascertain, the peoples of the world spent the late fifties and all of the sixties alarmed by the imminent threat of nuclear annihilation  and made many colourful films about how we were all going to die, but, after making 'Beneath the Planet of the Apes' in 1970, they forgot all about The Bomb until the early eighties, when a new breed of nuclear terror emerged, reigning until the end of the Cold War.  Here are two eighties films about what life would be like after the forthcoming nuclear apocalypse.

2019, After the Fall of New York (1983)

'Big Ape', who dresses like a prince of pumpkins.
It's 2019, which is now closer than I'm quite comfortable with, and in front of an obvious model of ruined New York humanity is playing out its final adventures.  Men drive aggressively, fight dustily, and mutate into people very slightly hairier than is generally considered acceptable.  Our hero Parsifal is commissioned by the President of the Pan-American Confederacy to seek out and recover the only fertile woman on Earth, who has been in suspended animation, and guarded by dwarves (presumably seven of them) since before the Nuke.

The story of Sleeping Beauty is only charming so long as nobody impregnates her while she is sleeping.  Alas, a charismatic mutant by the name of Big Ape, who claims to be the most virile man alive, is implied to do just that, though it mercifully occurs off-screen.  This isn't one of those sexy films, you know.  Nonetheless, it's hinted at and never really addressed, and seems horribly out of place in a lively adventure film.  People rightly complain about female characters whose sole merits are their fertility, but this seems to take the problem up to the next level, since the slumbering begetter never so much as speaks.  She sleeps, she carries humanity's future in her loins, and eventually wakes to smile beautifully and silently, as if she were the Duchess of Cambridge.

'They baked the Big Apple'
It's remarkably eighties, and makes the bold promise that a mere six years from now, people will be able to wear absolutely whatever they want and get away with it.  Indian head-dresses, pied top-hats, pumpkin costumes, you name it.  On that basis, it's a future I look forward to, with the only real problems being radioactive waste, the hordes of fluffy, flesh-hungry rats, and the decent chance of being shot with a flare-gun and burning to death while flailing around.

The film is Italian, but is generally shown dubbed into English.  Its script is enjoyable enough, occasionally delivering a memorable line or two.  But the whole thing fails in its mission to be 'Star Wars'.  It's the same year as 'Return of the Jedi', so a sci-fi runaround like this is surely chasing the same crowd.  Despite ambition, enjoyable design and a cross-breed of Chewbacca and Han Solo in the form of Big Ape, the film doesn't pull it off.  Part of the problem is probably a lack of money, part is in the direction - not that the film is sloppilyy directed, but I couldn't grasp which location led to which, and why each was important - something always clear in that famouser trilogy.  Here, a swift drive down a corridor could be a triumph, a retreat, an advance towards a prize or a journey back to the President and to safety, and I could never be sure which was which.

America 3000 (1986)

The Tiara of Frisco meets the PRESIDENT
In the year 3000, the consequences of nuclear disaster are even more significant.  It's one of those stories where women rule the Earth, and where this is obviously a Bad Thing.  The film has nothing particularly novel or profound to say about gender politics, except that if men were ever subjected to the oppression women have been under for the last 6,000 years, they'd be able to turn the tables in half a week.  The men are the heroes, you see.

This is an America where men are subjugated, used as 'machos', who do the hard labour, and 'Seeders', who do the sex.  Coitus is as messed up here as in the earlier film: women (or 'Fralls', as they're known) accept childbearing as a duty, and at a certain age they're tied down by their peers and impregnated by an anonymous man in a burqa.  This is far more horrible than sex ought to be, or so I'm told.  Since this too is not a sexy film, we never see the above occur, as the seeder is (perhaps rudely) interrupted by explosions and adventures.

The darker the eighties hair, the more villainous.
The sexual revolution starts when some guy (Chuck Wagner) finds a book of ABCs, using it to learn speech.  Naturally, this leads in no time at all to full conversation, sophisticated turns of phrase, rhetoric and wisecracking.  He's fortunate enough to fall down a hole, where he discovers the long-lost survival chamber of the President of America.  Since 'PRES-I-DENT' is still looked to as a god in the year 3000, Chuck gets to dress in a jazzy gold space suit and pretend to be the almighty commander in chief, the only man that the army of women would ever listen to.

The film seems to be on the same page as the equivalent era's 'Doctor Who', with its crude village of slang-spouting females seeming like a cross between 'Paradise Towers' (1987) and 'The Mysterious Planet' (1988).  'Plugots got neggy smarts for tricking nobody,' and, 'Nukin' Fralls gets us nothing but nuked Fralls,' are lines I can well imagine spouting from the former story's Bin Liner or Fire Escape.  I suspect they're leaning on the same sources - or at least that their bizarre flavour and look is likewise an attempt to put the style of eighties comics and graphic novels on the screen.

Mercifully, 'Paradise Towers' and 1988's 'The Happiness Patrol' spared us the ending we find here, as the armies face up against one another, but, seeing their leaders making out, discover within themselves the urge for romance, though whether this is love winning the day or hormones inflaming a long overdue season of lust, who can say?  The film's incessant, sarcastic narration flares up, and we cut away to follow Aargh the Awful, this film's Chewbacca-analogue, dancing into the sunset with a getto-blaster.

'America 3000' is only available on VHS, which seems entirely appropriate.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Bucket of Blood (1959)

Walter Paisley (Dick Miller), with a pancake pan
Everyone who's ever met me will know my love of pancakes, and my particular delight in pancake pans, those low-sided frying pans designed for lightness, dexterity, and all-round ease of flipping.  Imagine my delight and concern, then, when Walter Paisley, the spongy-legged hero and villain of this bizarre B-movie, does the inevitable and makes the pancake pan a weapon of murder, and a tool of art.

So there's this guy called Walter Paisley.  He serves tables at a cafe in the heart of America's beatnik scene.  All around him are artists who seem to him great.  Poets, painters, poseurs.  To us, they're incredibly pretentious - a point the film rams home slightly too hard - but to Walter they're heroes.  He yearns to be like them, to create a great work of art, and be respected; most of all, he wants everyone to say to him 'Walter, let me shake your hand.  It's been a real pleasure to have known you Walter'.  Walter has no especial talents.

It's not clear whether Walter has learning difficulties, or is just overwhelmed by the arrogant confidence of his peers.  Certainly, I've spent many days of my life being Walter Paisley, staring at my clay-analogue and realising I can't make anything out of it at all.  It's practically a default state.  However, a bizarre mishap changes his fortunes, and it's an event I hope never to replicate.  His landlady's cat gets stuck in the wall-space between rooms, and Walter tries to cut it out with his pocket-knife.  He aims poorly, and stabs the creature to death, and into an advanced state of rigor mortis.  What can he do to hide the evidence from his landlady?  He covers it with clay, of course.

Naturally, his clay cat is a big hit at the club.  Suddenly he's a figure of admiration, and many artists who ignored him suddenly admire him.  Maxwell, who bears a striking resemblance to an ambulant Michael Flanders, even delivers a poem about young Paisley.  Walter must make more sculptures.  Several of the artists even offer to model for him.  Obviously, this is where things start to go wrong.

Carla (Barboura Morris), the least arrogant beatnik, offers to model, but Walter would sooner marry her than kill her.
The trailer promises that we'll be 'sick sick sick ... with laughter', which isn't quite right.  It's a fun piece, a dark comedy, but makes no attempt to be hilarious.  It's thoroughly enjoyable, and at just over an hour makes an excellent appetiser to a longer programme of B-Movies (which is how I saw it lately), but while everybody found plenty to enjoy and laugh at, none of us were rolling around in hysterics.  It's just not that sort of movie.  The most well-worn piece of trivia about 'A Bucket of Blood', though it seems worth repeating here to give you an idea of the tone, is that filming ended two days before the sets were due to be taken down, so director Roger Corman used them to made the original version of 'Little Shop of Horrors', also featuring Dick Miller, who went on to have many fabulous adventures.

P.S. There is a bucket of blood in the film, as per the title, but so briefly that you could miss it.  After pancaking a policeman, Walter hides him in the ceiling, as you do, and puts out a bucket to catch any drips.

An enjoyable sorbet of a film, and currently available for as little as one pence, plus postage.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Hobo With a Shotgun (2011)

Rutger Hauer is a Hobo.
If it had been a UK film, I hope it would have starred Bernard Cribbins.
So, there's a hobo, and he has a shotgun.  The title is the pitch, and the film delivers pretty much what you'd expect or hope for.  A nameless, homeless man happens on a crude weapon, and engages on a fabulously violent campaign of homicide.  He's the hero, by the way, or else the concept would be terrifying.

The hobo rides into Hope Town in an empty luggage compartment of a freight train, and finds the conurbation to be a nest of iniquity and sudden death.  Fights and muggings go wholly unchallenged, almost unnoticed in the colourfully graffitied streets.  At the top of the town is the Drake (Brian Downey), who keeps the people in thrall with flamboyantly public murders of the most sensational varieties.  His sons Ivan and Slick pick off their victims almost recreationally, using dodgems to smash open their heads like watermelons.  Says the Drake: 'when life gives you razor blades, you make a baseball-bat covered with razor-blades.'  It's a mantra to live by.

The Drake, about to decapitate his brother.
Isn't it magnificently colourful!
Crowds guzzle spilt cocaine.  The people have long-since learnt to ignore cries for help, and let aggressors commit their murders uninterrupted.  Half-clad women dance in the spurting blood.  Since the cops have found complicity to be both lucrative and enjoyable, the victims have no champion and no hope.  The hobo is disgusted by all he sees, and circumstances eventually, eventually, provide him with a shotgun.  So he goes on a rampage of justice, and everybody deserves what they get.

It has something of the flavour of a Western, with a nameless stranger riding into a town in the middle of nowhere and straightening out the streets.  It put me in mind of 'High Plains Drifter' (1973), though there are probably many closer to this format.  This is all the better, though, for its modern setting, its familiar looks.  Any modern city could become Hope Town remarkably easily.  The look of the place is thrilling: everything is so colourful that the graffiti and trash seem beautiful, not dirty, and the blood seems appropriate decoration.

I love that someone's actually graffitied the word 'feces'.
It's the plural of 'fez', you know.
I was rather wary of watching 'Hobo With a Shotgun', for two reasons.  Firstly, I was concerned that a film so-titled might be as ironic and as wilfully awful as 'Snakes On a Plane' (2006).  To my relief, this was a work of merit, delighting in its schlock but never using it as an excuse.  Secondly, it looked to be distressingly violent.  Now, I've seen, and regretted seeing, some nauseating films which revelled in their characters' pain and sought to horrify their audiences with long scenes of torture and maiming.  'Hobo With a Shotgun' isn't that sort of thing at all.  Pain isn't lingered on, and the deaths are, while unpleasant, spectacular.  It's too stylised and too positive in message to give many nightmares.

There's a charm to it: a feeling that good can prosper, and villains might eventually be brought low.  The hobo isn't a violent man; he's a simple one with an innocent dream: all he wants is to own a lawnmower and use it to find work as a gardener.  His rampage against crime is just a step towards that dream, and an act to protect Abby (Molly Dunsworth), the young prostitute with whom he finds a tender friendship, and who dreams of going to the zoo to see the bears.

Don't worry - it isn't her own blood.
It's attractively directed, and the pictures are all striking.  Rutger Hauer gives a magnificent performance as the hobo, at one point giving a masterclass in eye-acting through a slit in a coffin.  The film's world is believable, beautifully stylised and intriguingly layered, as the eighties-tinged modernity of the town eventually opens up to show something more mysterious, more ancient, as the Drake calls forth The Plague.  This pair of mute knights are seen only briefly, and seem to hint at a long, long history of pestilence and butchery.  Their mediaeval stylings never jar with the rest of the film, and their faceless armour seems well-placed alongside the school-buses and monochrome varsity jackets of the modern American continent.  They expand what could have been a crude morality play, leaving something more mysterious, not restricted to a single time and place.

Despite my initial reservations, I'm glad I saw this film.  It's not so horrible as I feared, and while I would hesitate to show it to an infant, I think it's far less distressing and damaging than, say, 'The Death of Pencilton' (2011), or 'Na Srebrnym Globie' (1977), or  'The Snowman' (1982).

Monday, 10 June 2013

Das Security Bathroom (2006)

So, in 2006 I made a short movie about a rival to Noah's Ark.  Today I present the first ever video edition of The Penciltonian, regarding that motion picture.

You can't tolerate viewing a video, and yearn for text?  Well, in short the story's a bit of a mess, my camerawork and editing were unduly haywire even compared to the films of my peers (if I could find an online copy of Tom Hagley's 'The Invisibility Hat' from the same year, I'd give it as evidence).  The resources were there, the cast were good and the set was beautiful, and with rather more thought and more imagination put into its script it would still be worth watching today.  As it stands, the thing's almost all talking and fighting, and the pictures aren't allowed to tell the story.  It also verges on misogyny, which just doesn't do, you know.

P.S. With this entry, I've covered every year of the Noughties - my first complete decade.  Congratulate me, please!  Here's a list of every film viewed, if you're curious.  It's as clear a picture of the Penciltonian as you could really hope for.

An assortment of relevant items on Youtube:
• 'Das Security Bathroom' (2006)
• 'Pencilton and the Giant Spider' (2012), my only more recent foray into writer-directing.
• 'Der Tod Des Viel Verfluchten Buckligen' (2004), a short film by Tom Hagley and Johnny Sidle, featuring several of the same cast as 'Das Security Bathroom', and in general a more pleasingly visual piece.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Dogma (1999)

Alan Rickman IS Metatron, God's messenger to humankind
YellowToast, my fellow Radio KoL DJ, suggested I watch 'Dogma' for 1999.  The year came down to either this or Gilbert & Sullivan biopic 'Topsy-Turvy' (which is very good), but I'd only seen 'Dogma' once, long ago, and was curious to revisit it.  Happy coincidence meant I found a copy in a charity shop almost immediately.

So, it goes something like this.  There are two somewhat fallen angels, one of them the erstwhile Angel of Death, who have been living on Earth for millennia, but find a loophole in Catholic doctrine which would allow them to return to Heaven, from which they were once banished.  (In short, all they have to do is walk through the archway of a certain reconsecrated church, and then die.  It sounds theologically iffy, but they're counting on an obscure and arcane piece of church dogma, and on Jesus' promise to St Peter in in Matthew 18: 18 that what is bound on Earth will be bound in Heaven, meaning that blessings, however bizarre, affirmed by the church will count in Heaven too, at least by the interpretation here).  The angels are played by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, and this big-name casting initially makes them seem like they must be the main characters; indeed, their scheme sounds reasonable and their plight sympathetic, but their schemes for salvation soon begin to look destructive, even villainous.

This is what God looks like, sometimes
An unlikely saviour is found in Bethany (Linda Fiorentino), a Catholic abortionist on the cusp of losing her faith entirely.  This being a Kevin Smith film, Bethany eventually finds herself accompanied by those two excellent churls Jay and Silent Bob (Jason Mewes and Smith himself), a pleasingly unlikely pairing for the crusade to New Jersey.  Along the way there's wealth of adventure, action and comedy, and a particularly starry guest cast including Chris Rock, Salma Hayek and a surprisingly good performance by Alanis Morissette.  Perhaps predictably, my favourite casting is Alan Rickman as the pallid, sarcastic and coolly British messenger of God.  God himself is in a coma in hospital, which complicates matters somewhat.

Silent Bob, Jay and Bethany regard a naked apostle.
The film opens with disclaimer that it's only a comedy, and shouldn't be taken seriously.  To my mind it sells itself short here.  For all its whimsy and crude comedy, 'Dogma' is a rare, mature discussion of faith, its purpose and its loss.  I don't necessarily agree with its findings, but I'm glad of the discussion, so it's a pity writer/director Kevin Smith felt a need to include a slide telling us not to give it much credence.  If it stopped extremists burning down cinemas, I suppose it's worthwhile, but I don't feel that the film lacks theological merit.

It's a pity there aren't more comedies about God.  There are some, I suppose, but usually not funny ones, and rarely do they cast Him in a positive light without making Him seem tedious.  The only other well known Christianity-flavoured comedy that comes to mind is 1979's 'Monty Python's Life of Brian', but that's more a satire on religion and politics, and the existence of God is never explicitly discussed.  'Dogma', though, is surely as agreeable to an atheist audience as to a Christian one, and this without refraining from crudeness and offensiveness.  Having twice enjoyed this and the two Clerks films (1994, 2006) I'm quite tempted to seek out Smith's other View Askewniverse movies - though I may wait until the end of this Penciltonian project to do so, lest I overburden you with movies of similar flavour.

Hey look, buyable things.

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Ninja Terminator (1985)

Ninja-Master Harry, about to prostrate himself before a metal arm.
I was sent this Ninja Z-movie by Andrew Collier, who was likewise responsible for my viewing of 'Train to Hell' (1998).  Now, given my preference for jikatabi (it's a type of shoe, if you don't know), I ought to delight in ninja movies; in fact, I don't think I've ever seen one until now.  As bizarre as this low-budget action adventure is, it's my only window into the genre, so I'm going to have to assume they're all like this until I can see a real one.  By real, I mean one that's actually Japanese.

Richard Harrison (who is, alas, not Richard Harris) plays Ninja Master Harry.  He has a moustache, but we're meant to think he's a really cool guy.  The moustache kills it, and he comes across as one of those people who fill their house with swords and guns, and pose with them, and dress up as a macho ninja type, and have a moustache and spend all day waxing their wakazashi and taking uber-manly photos of themselves holding weapons, and growing a moustache.  In short, he looks like a P.E. teacher, and I can't look to him with the same admiration for his colossal virility that he might admire in himself.

Ninja-Master Harry has a moustache
I don't know why the moustache is such an issue for me, but apparently it is.  Now, David Niven can wear a moustache, and so can Nicholas Courtney, or Frank Zappa, or Freddie Mercury.  I appreciate Movember, and don't rail against it.  Perhaps it's that these people know that moustaches sans beards are slightly bizarre, idiosyncratic things, not badges of manliness.  Ninja-Master Harry seems to represent a coolness without irony, and it doesn't work.  He's a hero who could never laugh at himself.  His being a caucasian Ninja and also (with an implied 'therefore') the best Ninja doesn't help matters.

So anyway, this is a movie full of people fighting each other.  Despite this, it's not as violent as I expected.  The fights are fun and exciting, with very little blood.  Sometimes just a trickle from the lip, to suggest that an opponent has been thoroughly trounced.  Enemies are dispatched, not killed, and conflicts are as likely to end with the sudden disappearance of one ninja, leaving behind a cryptic message.  Often the fights saunter into bizarre comedy, with the less credible of henchmen having their noses tweaked, armpits tickled, even the odd blow to the old family jewels, replete with agonised hopping about.  Ninja movies are clearly a sort of drama to be played by dancers, not orators.  I like the way they move, the dynamic, rather angular way characters sit up, or turn around, or even double-take. 

A henchman who knows how to moustache properly.  His hair and mine are alike.
The aggressive cheapness of the opening credits (the music for which sounds to have been extracted from a cassette) left me expecting a less impressive film than I got.  True, the dubbing into English was questionable, and Ninja-Master Harry had something of Garth Marenghi about him - but much of the footage seemed to have time and genuine skill put into it, especially the fights, and anything featuring the stylish Jaguar Wong, who can carry out whole fights one-handed, while idly chewing on gum.  Since Harry and Wong never meet, nor interact at all except over the telephone, I think director Godfrey Ho may well have played the standard Z-movie trick of borrowing half-an-hour of action scenes from somebody's abandoned film and cutting them in with his own footage.  This would go some way to explaining a bizarre scene early on, where two characters, who appear only briefly, are over-dubbed with a great deal of exposition, the contents and emotions of which have no bearing on the performances we see.

So, it's fun, the fighting is visually impressive, and it holds the attention far better than I was expecting.  Naturally it's flawed in many ways, which in a Z-movie of this calibre is to be expected and even hoped for.  One problem, though, is far less excusable: women in this film are commodities and nothing more, there to be kidnapped or traded, to sleep with or cook for our heroes, or admire their weaponry.  Every single man in the film has been trained to fight, but the women have learnt only to be victims.  When Ninja-Master Harry's woman is stolen, he sees nothing objectionable about kidnapping an enemy female to arrange a trade.  Like the golden statuette that the Ninjas pursue, the women are merely possessions to own and guard.  It's tempting to brush past this and say it's a product of its time, but by the mid-eighties surely people knew better.

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