Films #120-122: Fast and Furious 4-6

film 120 121 122 fast and furious

Ratings: Fast and Furious, 3/5; Fast and Furious 5, 5/5; Fast and Furious 6, 4/5

Who’d have thought, fourteen years ago, that the fairly low-budget, kind-of exploitation movie Fast and Furious would have spawned six sequels, with another three to come? Now one of the hottest franchises around, part 7 promises to be ridiculous, and ridiculously entertaining – albeit tainted by the sudden death of Paul Walker in a real car accident. How they’ll deal with this remains to be seen, and how the series copes with the loss of one of its lead actors will largely depend on what direction the writers choose to take it. In advance of part 7’s release, however, I watched parts 4-6 – the revamped, rebooted portion of the franchise, following the less memorable Tokyo Drift. Back to back, it was a great afternoon/evening and, by the end of it, Vin Diesel had become one of my favourite bad actors. Bless his cotton socks, he tries. He really does – you can see the effort in every heartfelt scene, every moment of conflict. He so clearly takes his craft so seriously, but no matter what inner turmoil the character’s going through, none of it translates. He is the man with one face – blank, stoic, an empty void. Yet I can’t help but enjoy his performances, particularly when they’re watched one after the other. Somehow this franchise has survived despite the fact that I’m fairly certain neither of the leads (and most of the ensemble cast around them) can act.

And it’s not just about the cars. The F&F movies have succeeded for a few key reasons. One, the characters are simple and unremarkable, but they’re all likeable and, to the writers’ credit, each one has their own distinctive personality – however unimaginative and lacking nuance – and they all spark off each other well. I can’t even complain about the women, who hold their own while looking smokin’ hot. Two, the action sequences – of which there are many – are dynamic, explosive, absurd, and thoroughly engaging. These are such macho movies, but they’re not alienating, and that’s quite impressive really. Three, the cars themselves are a thing of beauty, if you’re that way inclined, and there’s something for every afficionado, from American muscle cars, to hot hatches, and even some proper supercars. Needless to say, everything’s really shiny. Four, Dwayne Johnson is now most definitely part of the F&F “family”. More on him in a bit. And finally – perhaps even more importantly than the inclusion of The Rock – these films are just plain fun. They do exactly what they say they’re going to: fast cars, fast driving, furious action, full-on entertainment. Having moved beyond the original street-car themes, these movies are now straight-up action, and all the better for it.

Although each film in the series does fit into the F&F universe, it’s the last three that have really moved directly on from each other – part 4 even finishes on a cliffhanger that opens part 5. Part 4 is good, but it’s nothing compared to 5, when all hell breaks loose in Rio and Dwayne Johnson turns up to out-Vin-Diesel Vin Diesel. Sporting a tough-guy goatee and some serious muscle, Johnson is the actor Vin Diesel can never hope to be – bigger, stronger, and infinitely more charismatic. Whereas Vin Diesel appears to think he’s starring in the next hard-hitting think-piece, Johnson knows full well where he is: slap-bang in the middle of a world where the laws of gravity no longer apply, where criminals are good guys but bad guys are super bad, where jail never really seems to be a possibility and money is rarely an issue. This is a world like the one that James Bond inhabits, where the bad guys’ cars instantly implode on impact, but the good guys can be taken out by trucks and walk away unscathed. It’s a world where, somehow, everyone seems to have a licence to kill, and no qualms about using it, where law enforcement is fully aware of this fact but does nothing, and there are absolutely no repercussions whatsoever following the majority of Rio being taken out by a giant runaway safe. Simply put, it’s my kind of world.

There is a risk, of course, that the films will become stupid in their efforts to outdo themselves, and it’s already happening. Part 6 is a step down after the glorious stupidity and hugely entertaining heist scheme of part 5 – there’s more action, less story, more ass-kicking, less attention to physics, less The Rock, more London. By the time the plane started taking off on the runway, signalling the beginning of one of the most ludicrous final scenes in recent cinema memory (experts claim the runway must be almost 30km in length, exceeding the world’s longest by almost 25km), I had completely lost track of why they were there in the first place. Something about an international terrorist and a bunch of top secret “components”? Not that it really matters much – who cares about plot when you’ve got a tank taking out innocent drivers on a Spanish motorway, a street race through Piccadilly Circus, and a bad-guy plane (you know what that means!)? Well, in truth, me – a little bit. Part 6 is fun, don’t get me wrong, but it doesn’t quite get the balance right. So it goes like this: Part 4 is them finding their feet (wheels?); Part 5 is them in their prime; Part 6 is trying just a bit too hard. As for Part 7? Well, the trailer looks pretty epic – and I expect nothing less.

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Random Thought Corner: The Curse of the Boxset

random thought corner boxset

Some eagle-eyed readers may have noticed that Movie Lottery hasn’t been updated in a shamefully long time. There is a legitimate reason for this: I’m in the final six months (fingers crossed!) of my PhD, and have had to prioritise my university writing over my blog posts. It’s understandable, right? Well, it would be, I suppose, if that were the only reason. Now is the time to stand up and admit the truth: I am a boxset addict. You might have seen Virgin Media’s recent “boxset owl” adverts, with the endearingly wide-eyed owl resolutely staying up until the wee hours of the morning, just to watch “one more episode”. That’s me.

It’s not that I’ve not watched any movies over the last four months. I’ve tried to go to the cinema more often, I’ve attempted to clear our Tivo box of some of the films I’ve recorded (because we just don’t own enough unwatched movies already…) and, if I’m being honest, part of the reason why I’ve avoided picking movies out of the bag is because I just don’t have time to update this blog as regularly as I want, but I still feel an obligation to write about the films on our shelves. But mostly, I’ve spent the last four months watching television – or, more accurately, binge-watching television series. This is the golden age of TV, the emergence of “quality” television, a time when one of last year’s most cinematic events was True Detective. Movie stars – bona fide, Oscar-winning, still-in-demand actors – are now appearing in televisions shows, and there’s no shame in it. It’s no longer taboo, the sign of declining popularity, of desperation. Now, it’s viewed as an opportunity to stretch one’s acting abilities, to truly embody a character in long-form storytelling. The accolades are there, the money is there, the talent is there. TV is where it’s at.

Do I really believe this? Well, in part, of course – visual media is changing, and as more people reject the picturehouses in favour of their home cinema, their 42inch flat-screen HD TV, their surround sound, their comfy sofa, their supermarket-priced snacks, so too is the way audiences consume television. But can I really argue that I am a boxset owl because movies no longer interest me, because there’s just too much quality television? Well, no. Not really.

In the last four months, I’ve watched – well, anything really. If I have a season or more at my disposal, I will watch it. My quality control is now determined by quantity. Some of the TV I’ve consumed has been great: Broadchurch, season one (watched in one day); Twin Peaks (watched over two weeks, with an accidental spoiler revealing the final shot of the final episode with just three instalments to go – thanks a bunch, Empire magazine); Homeland, season 4 (watched over a weekend – the first ten episodes are possibly the most tense television I’ve ever watched, but it was sorely let down by a weak and irrelevant final episode); Orange is the New Black, both seasons (a week’s viewing). Others were more forgettable: Grimm, season three? Four? Once Upon a Time, season 3. Duck Dynasty, season seven (okay, I know it’s trash, and it’s a reality show, but I can’t help but love it – no shame). Almost all of That 70’s Show, despite having seen it many times before, and knowing that it goes on for at least two seasons too long. There are probably others that made so little impact I have forgotten them already. In fact, the only show I’ve not stuck with despite having the first two seasons sitting waiting to be watched is House of Cards – sorry, Kevin Spacey, you just didn’t grab me. I’ve not even dared to get a hold of Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad, for fear that they’ll be as good as everyone says, and I’ll lose another two or three weeks of my life.

Why are boxsets so addictive? What’s the appeal of binge-watching? Well, there’s something very comforting in knowing that there’s another episode just around the corner. We can get fully immersed in the story, feel involved with the characters in a way that is less achievable in movies – and movies seem to be taking some cues from television. Just look at the Marvel universe, which now spans television, cinema, and asks audiences to follow the characters not just in a contained, two hour story, but in a world that spans years and works in a cross-media format. Consider the popularity of franchises. Viewers love seeing their favourite characters in new situations. The only problem is that, in cinema, we have to wait too darn long for the next two hour instalment. With boxsets, well, it’s instant gratification. We can see the next development RIGHT NOW, and by golly, we want it that way. There’s nothing worse than seeing the final credits roll, the screen go blank, and to suffer the realisation that, after hours or days or weeks of watching, the story is finally over.

Binge-watching is all about instant gratification. It transforms the way we consume television, whether we realise it or not. What’s the point in a cliff-hanger, for example, if we can see the outcome a few seconds later in the next episode? Take the last season of Homeland, for example. Each episode set up the events of the next, leaving me wide-eyed and open-mouthed, feeling stressed and anxious, worrying about the fates of my favourite characters, knowing that this is the kind of show that isn’t afraid to kill off its leads. Yet I had recorded the whole season. I didn’t have to wait a week. I didn’t have to think about the potential effects or the implications of events. I just had to stick the next episode on.

Does this diminish my experience of Homeland? No, but it does alter it. Surely I’m not the only one who realises that, weeks – or even days – after a particularly intense binge-watching session, I can barely remember what actually happened, no matter how much I enjoyed it at the time? Episodes blur together, events bleed into one large, long, convoluted episode. Instant gratification has its perks, but in terms of actually making a real, genuine, long-lasting impact? Binge-watching might make it seem like you’re really experiencing the fictional world – you dedicate hours of your time to it, your life is put on temporary sabbatical while you immerse yourself in another, vicarious living experience – but it’s fleeting, temporary. For one day, perhaps, your focus is rigidly fixed. The next, it’s onto something else. From hard-hitting, intense, political CIA thriller to all-female prison dramedy. From super-weird Lynchian fantasy to camp Disneyfied fairytale, each world ready to replace the previous as the focus of all my attention.

So what about movies? Why is it that, after some intensive binge-watching, when I happily – eagerly – sat for perhaps six or seven hours a night, dragging myself to bed at 2.30am knowing I have an early start the next morning, the idea of sitting down to watch a two hour movie seems like such a chore? It’s not like my boxsets have ad breaks – they’ve either been recorded and stored for future binge-watching (a conscious decision, so bad is my addiction) or they’re on DVD, hopefully with a “play all” button so I don’t need to do anything but sit back and let the fictional world wash over me, wrap around me like a big comfy blanket, familiar and easy. But the pacing is different, whether we take advantage of ad breaks and episode conclusions or not. Despite its long-form storytelling, each episode has pauses and breaks and mini-cliffhangers. It’s like watching six hours of soundbites, the action neatly divided into easily digestible fifteen minute wedges. It’s not like a movie, where you should, ideally, not be distracted, not have bathroom breaks, not get up or discuss the events on screen as they’re happening, or answer that text. Boxsets allow you to do all these things, but there’s always another episode. You can be distracted, but your time can be entirely consumed nonetheless.

What of the future? Well, the problem with binge-watching boxsets is that eventually you do reach the last episode. And then the wait for the next season begins. Instead of pacing myself, of allowing myself an hour a week to slowly digest my favourite shows, I have been a glutton, devouring them all in one sitting. Now they’re all gone and, just like the next instalment of a movie franchise, I have to wait – maybe even years. So maybe now that I’ve run out of boxsets, I can restart watching movies. Or, I could rewatch Buffy. Then I could rewatch Angel. Then I may as well watch Firefly, and Dollhouse – what the hell, why not. Plus there’s still Breaking Bad – most people are horrified to hear I’ve not watched them. And Banshee‘s on television again, that’s ten episodes or so (and it’s great, by the way – really, truly, trashily great). And the next season of Orange is the New Black should be starting at some point, right? Not to mention Twin Peaks – after twenty-five years! And I now have season two of Broadchurch to watch…. Oh well. Movie Lottery will resume… eventually.

Film #119: The Lego Movie (2014)

film 119 the lego movie

Rating: 4/5

“Everything is awesome!!!!”

Despite the fact that this film is the most blatant and shameless example of product placement, it’s a lot of fun. It’s also probably the only time we’ll ever get an ensemble cast quite as epic: Gandalf, Batman, Abraham Lincoln, Wonderwoman, Han Solo, and half of the LA Lakers together? When Wreck-It Ralph promised to feature all the classic video game characters in one movie, the results were crushingly inadequate. Here, The Lego Movie delivers, and the interactions between the various cameos – no matter how brief – are very entertaining. It’s the cameo characters that have some of the best running jokes in the movie – poor loser Green Lantern, for example, or 1950’s Space Man Benny desperately trying to build a spaceship. The voice cast is excellent too – kudos to Liam Neeson in particular, sending himself up as split personality Good Cop/ Bad Cop, one of the best characters in the movie.

As well as a seemingly endless number of super-awesome cameos to keep an eye out for, the movie itself is jam-packed. Visually it’s a treat – not quite as puntastic as Aardman’s stop-motion, but just as eye-catching. It’s like a regular movie that’s eaten six bags of sugar in under thirty seconds, washed down with five energy drinks: it’s chaotic, manic, delirious. The pace is non-stop and, quite brilliantly, acknowledged as being such – it’s revealed that the action is apparently playing out in real time. Jack Bauer would be proud (or green with envy at these characters’ productivity). It’s also truly vast in scope, with the action racing from a perfectly ordered city, to the wild west (complete with beautiful panoramic views), to the high seas and beyond. I wonder if the writers had watched A Town Called Panic for inspiration – the films share more than a passing resemblance. Both feature crazy stop motion, non-stop action, hugely ambitious landscapes, and a barely contained insanity. I have to admit, however, A Town Called Panic is the better film. I don’t mind the product placement in The Lego Movie (although it becomes a bit too explicit towards the end) – the biggest issue I have is its confused message about the product placement. Poor Lego seems very muddled about what its purpose and appeal is, and the attempts to unite the sentiment of the product with the most effective marketing ploys don’t really work.

The film itself focuses on Emmet, a generic construction worker who has boundless energy and optimism, but no friends. He likes to conform, to fit in – everything has its place and thinking outside the box is definitely a bad thing. Yet Emmet’s structured life leaves him feeling isolated and unfulfilled until one day, when everything changes. Accidentally becoming the fabled “Special” – the only person who can stop evil Lord Business’ dastardly plans for Taco Tuesday, whatever that is, Emmet finds himself working with a band of “master builders” – an assortment of characters, including Batman, love interest Wyld Style, and Morgan Freeman (sorry, Vitruvius, played by Morgan Freeman), who can create anything in seconds using the Lego pieces around them. The message is clear: conformity bad, creativity good. The structured world preferred by Lord Business is perfect, perfectly ordered, and perfectly boring. In contrast, Cloud Cuckoo Land, a place where imagination runs wild, is a veritable utopia. Meanwhile, Emmet has to unlock his imagination to become the “Special” and save the world. The potential for invention is endless, and the movie makes it very clear that this is the “right” way of thinking about Lego. This is great, and seems to really embody the original concept of Lego, which came in buckets or could be bought like bags of pick ‘n’ mix. It’s a wonderful idea: let your imagination run wild, using simple blocks of plastic that can become whatever you want – cities, animals, whole worlds, anything. Problem is, however, that Lego now comes in pre-packaged assembly kits. Do you want a pirate boat? Buy the pirate boat kit. Want a race-car, a farm, a house, a spaceship? Buy the kit. Most depressing about this whole situation is that now you can even buy kits for the creatures and objects made by the master builders in the movie – the things that work precisely because they don’t conform. Hell, you can buy a Cloud Cuckoo landscape and a Unikitty.

It’s this kind of basic inner conflict that makes The Lego Movie such a problematic product and, no matter how fun and entertaining it is – and it is, absolutely – I can’t help but feel that the creators have really proved how troubled the whole Lego world really is now. There’s another movie planned, of course, but it’s unclear what direction a sequel can really go in. This film loses momentum as it reaches its conclusion: there are hints throughout as to how it’s going to end, but the sudden shift from hyped-up craziness to solemn sentimentality is underwhelming. Yet until this point, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable experience. It’s just a shame that the product itself seems to be having a complete identity crisis.

Film #118: Glen or Glenda (1953)

film 118 glen or glenda

Rating: 3/5

“Give this man satin undies, a dress, a sweater and a skirt, or even the lounging outfit he has on, and he’s the happiest individual in the world. He can work better, think better, he can play better, and he can be more of a credit to his community and his government because he is happy.”

It’s difficult to know where to begin. Glen or Glenda, Ed Wood’s feature debut and his most overtly personal movie, is easily one of the most (in)famous badfilms around – so much so that it has become something much more. Watching it without any knowledge of the filmmaker is an entirely different experience, but I can barely remember those days. Now my head is filled with Ed Wood trivia, anecdotes, interviews with his friends and colleagues, and all of these have inevitably, irrevocably altered my perception of the film. Let me clarify my position. Glen or Glenda is a bad movie. It’s inept and incoherent, obviously low-budget, and clearly spliced together from a mass of unrelated stock footage. Yet it’s also deeply personal, oddly progressive (with regards to certain groups of people; in contrast, the gay community are entirely vilified), and strangely fascinating. Ed Wood is not a good director in classical terms, but there is something about Glen or Glenda. In many ways, Wood is barely responsible for this re-evaluation – it’s the amount of extratextual information available that transforms way the movie is now viewed.

Viewers who are unaware of the conditions under which Glen or Glenda emerged will be understandably bemused by it. In the context of classical narrative cinema, it is truly inept – following the death of a transvestite, a police inspector (Lyle Talbot) visits a psychiatrist (Timothy Farrell) for advice. The good doctor relates two stories: the first follows Glen, a transvestite engaged to Barbara but afraid to admit his fetish to her; the second follows Alan, a pseudohermaphrodite who finally becomes Ann thanks to the wonders of medical science. So far, so boring, but this framing device is just the tip of the iceberg. As well as the doctor’s voice-over, horror star Bela Lugosi features as a god-like figure called The Scientist, sitting among voodoo totems and bubbling lab equipment, making powerful statements like “Bevare the big green dragon that sits on your doorstep!” and “Pull the stringks!” There’s a surreal dream sequence involving Glen, Barbara, and a devil (played by the wonderfully named Captain DeZita, who also intriguingly plays Glen’s father in one brief scene – whether the connection is meant to be noticed remains unknown). A whole host of off-screen voices make bizarre claims about transvestites, while the doctor continues with his scientific lecture, emphasising that Glen is “not a homosexual” and arguing that men suffer from receding hairlines due to their hats being too tight. At one point Barbara asks Glen what’s troubling him, and a herd of stampeding buffalo suddenly burst onto the screen. The story is entirely abandoned for some eight minutes towards the end, when a series of burlesque scenes involving scantily-clad females tying each other up interrupts the action. There’s no sense of time passing, no real narrative progression, no believable connection between the transvestite and the hermaphrodite. No wonder Glen or Glenda has been considered one of the worst films of all time.

And yet. Glen or Glenda doesn’t appear in IMDB’s Bottom 100 (indeed, no Ed Wood movie does, despite his fame). In badfilm writing, there’s a strange tension when it comes to Glen or Glenda. It has to get mentioned, because to not acknowledge it would be to imply a serious omission in knowledge, but the actual reviews are frequently far more sympathetic and supportive than one might expect. Much is made of the personal, biographical nature of the film: Wood was a transvestite himself, and he plays Glen. His then-girlfriend Dolores Fuller is Barbara. In one particularly iconic scene, recreated in Tim Burton’s excellent biopic, Barbara demonstrates her acceptance of Glen’s alter-ego by symbolically removing her angora sweater and handing it to her fiancé – as any Wood fan will be aware, the filmmaker had an angora fetish that pops up in many of his movies. So much of the film seems biographical: the doctor’s claims that Glen’s mother wanted a daughter and dressed her son up as a girl; remarks about soldiers wearing lingerie beneath their fatigues – these are personal touches, little insights into the filmmaker himself. Even the fact that the film’s message is one of tolerance, emphasising the internal struggle of men who cannot reveal their true identity to the world, is because of Wood’s own struggles – the film, produced by exploitation magnate George Weiss, was originally meant to capitalise on the scandal of Christine Jorgensen’s sex-change operation, but Alan/Ann’s story is completely sidelined, given only a brief mention towards the end of the movie.

The exploitation origins of Glen or Glenda are crucial also. Classical exploitation had its own distinctive style – anyone interested in reading more should check out Eric Schaefer’s excellent book. These movies eschewed the conventions of classical narrative cinema, positioning themselves as a lecture or documentary rather than fiction, as a way of bypassing censorship. By emphasising the “educational” and cautionary aspects of the film, exploitation filmmakers could show all the shock and scandal they wanted. If Glen or Glenda seems particularly incoherent and bad in the context of classical narrative cinema, when compared to other exploitation films of the period, it’s unexpectedly generic.

So much has been written about Glen or Glenda, and so much has been repeated that it often feels as though there’s nothing new left to say. It has been “riffed” and mocked as a bad movie, praised as a deeply personal, if naïve, insight into a filmmaker struggling on the fringes of Hollywood, reclaimed as an avant-garde work of art. Personally, I struggle with the latter position – a work of art suggests something has been deliberately created. Through his own incompetence, somehow Wood has managed to create a film that is so incoherent and illogical, so cobbled together, that it encourages the audience (if they are so inclined) to actively search for justification, to find some way of explaining the weirdness on screen. Yet was Wood himself ever aware of his affect? Probably not. Was he trying to subvert conventions? Doubtful, when Glen or Glenda is so typical of the style of other classical exploitation at the time. Yet he was trying to get his message across. His plea for tolerance and understanding completely dominates the film, bringing a truly (if unintentionally) personal twist to the events on screen. For viewers who are so inclined (and many are), it’s this fact that makes the film so endearing, so sympathetic, so fascinating. Glen or Glenda originated as a generic exploitation film and became a bad movie. It’s still both those things, but such is the film – and filmmaker’s – reputation today that it transcends such seemingly reductive categorisation.

Bonus! You can watch Glen or Glenda in its entirety here!

Film #117: The Monster of Camp Sunshine (1964)

film 117 the monster of camp sunshine

Rating: 1.5/5
Enjoyment: 4/5

“The motion picture that follows is a fable. In it there are many nudists but only one monster. In life, it is generally the other way around.”

The strange, Gilliam-esque opening credits may hint at the oddity that is The Monster of Camp Sunshine, but even they can’t really prepare you for what’s to come. It’s a nudie cutie with a horror twist and, in our collection, comes as part of a double feature released by Something Weird Video – if there are any other versions of it available, avoid them. Something Weird have created an entire drive-in movie experience, complete with retro adverts for hotdogs, beer, and Vespas, with the added bonus of a whole selection of nudie trailers and short movies (including a particularly entertaining one featuring a large woman and a rather scathing voice-over narrator). The first film in the double feature, The Beast that Killed Women, is reasonably amusing for its badness; The Monster of Camp Sunshine matches that badness with complete and utter deliriousness.

Shot as a silent film with shoddy dubbing in post-production and a ponderous, haphazard voice-over narrator, The Monster of Camp Sunshine has not aged well. It’s delightfully quaint and retro now, of course, but chances are that even when it was first released it looked dated – the swinging 60s fashion is spot-on, and New York looks pretty hip, but the film’s frequent use of intertitles, its uninspiring special effects, and monochrome cinematography make it more like a 40s exploitation movie than a mid-60s nudie flick. The intertitles in particular are a strange addition – the film begins with them, harking back to a far earlier type of cinema, although they are increasingly revealed to be rather tongue-in-cheek. In truth, much of the film is silent – once the leading ladies and their small party leave the Big Apple and arrive at Camp Sunshine upstate, the voice-over is abandoned, the intertitles take precedence, and dialogue is virtually non-existent.

The film opens in New York, in the cluttered apartment of Claire (Deborah Spray) and Marta (Sally Parfait), two young nudists with what is easily the coolest hanging ashtray in existence. Claire narrates the first half of the movie, filling the narrative with flashbacks and events that she couldn’t possibly know about. She’s a fashion model, while Marta works as a nurse in a hospital that appears to have no patients but lots of animal testing. While Claire models topless swimsuits on top of a New York skyscraper (the Empire State Building looming in the background – it’s a dizzying photoshoot, beautifully captured on film), Marta accidentally pours toxic liquid onto some of the lab mice, turning them into vicious monsters who attack her so violently that she ends up precariously hanging out the window, about to plummet to her death. Fortunately, a kindly doctor happens by, and this proactive man quickly disposes of the deadly liquid – by casually chucking it into the Hudson. In a series of highly unlikely events relying entirely on coincidence, the jar ends up contaminating the stream running through nudist retreat Camp Sunshine, transforming the owner’s simpleton brother Hugo into a rabid monster (his dodgy black wig and tissue-paper boils would be the envy of Tor Johnson’s Joseph Javorsky).

As nudie cuties go, The Monster of Camp Sunshine is surprisingly focused on narrative. The film itself is slow – despite the opening intertitles claiming there are many nudists, there really aren’t, and they only feature for a few scenes. That being said, they are proper nudists – whereas films like Nude on the Moon and Orgy of the Dead make sure that their naked beauties resolutely keep their knickers on, here both men and women are fully nude, although modesty is preserved through an assortment of carefully positioned hats, towels, books and musical instruments, while men in particular seem to be constantly walking away from camera. (On a side note, the men’s tan lines are so vividly pronounced that it frequently looks like they’re wearing white shorts.)

Claire’s voice-over disappears once the party – now including Claire’s photographer boss and an inexperienced office assistant who hopes to lose her inhibitions through nudism – leave New York, and after some long, slow scenes in which not much happens, everything kicks off. After fifty minutes or so of fairly generic, mildly entertaining badness, the Hugo-monster escapes his shed-prison and all hell breaks loose, with a quite literal explosion of stock footage. Marta, somehow instantly arriving at the highly improbable yet correct conclusion that the chemicals from the hospital are the cause of Hugo’s new insanity, calls her doctor friend, who races off to the nearest airfield, boards a plane and parachutes into the camp holding a syringe. He may be the “forces of mercy” but somehow the “forces of violence” have also been contacted and, sure enough, soon they also arrive, complete with vast armies. The cavalry arrive. Cannons are let off. There’s a beach invasion! Soldiers from what appears to be the War of Independence drop by, while others peer through the viewfinder of giant missiles. It becomes dark, but Marta, who Hugo ruthlessly attacked with an axe, is still lying in the middle of the field rolling around. The doctor continues making silent pleas from the top of the van, where he expertly landed. More soldiers! Bombs go off, Claire’s boss shoots Hugo with a small pistol, before lobbing a whole load of dynamite (!!) at him. In the midst of the chaos, the small group of naked ladies run amok. It’s deranged, completely unexpected, and quite possibly the most insane, exaggerated, and utterly ludicrous conclusion to a film I’ve ever seen. Nothing quite prepared me for the barrage of lunacy. Badfilm fans will find plenty to love about The Monster of Camp Sunshine, but it’s these five minutes of utter surrealism that really make it.

Film #116: The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

film 116 the nightmare before christmas
Rating: 5/5

“Yet year after year,
It’s the same routine
And I grow so weary
Of the sound of screams
And I Jack, the pumpkin king,
Have grown so tired of the same old thing.”

Although it’s probably been about ten years since I last watched this, as soon as the opening credits began, I was immediately transported back, and everything felt so completely familiar. Watching the film on a surprisingly undamaged VHS (quite possibly the tape I’ve had longest in my collection – this is one of the few films I’ve owned since my childhood), I couldn’t help but be impressed at just how good The Nightmare Before Christmas is. I liked it as a kid, but as an adult I really appreciate the nuance of it, notice the little details that fill every scene (this time around, I noticed that the Christmas Land folk have pet penguins).

Of course, this is the most quintessentially Tim Burton picture around. His name is synonymous with the film, and its glorious gothic expressionism and unconventional protagonists are so completely and utterly Burtonesque that it seems to exemplify the contemporary auteur’s style even more than Edward Scissorhands. Yet, of course, this is not a Tim Burton picture – not really. In fact, he didn’t even write the screenplay, though the story and characters are based on his concepts. Yes, this is Henry Selick’s picture, and the director has created a vast, rich world, one that he came very close to matching in Coraline some fifteen years later. Tim Burton finally created his own feature-length stop-motion world in 2005 with one of his many collaborations with Johnny Depp, Corpse Bride, and ironically that film never comes close to reaching the same levels of immersive gothic fantasy that Selick’s creations inspire.

The story is probably well known to most people. Jack Skellington, the pumpkin king, has led the inhabitants of Halloween Town in another successful, scare-filled holiday, but is having a mid-life crisis. Knowing that he’s great at his job, nevertheless he craves something new, and finds inspiration when he accidentally stumbles into Christmas Land. Overwhelmed by the concept of laughter, joy, and happiness, he returns to his home and announces his plans to do Christmas this year. Yet despite their enthusiasm, the townspeople are incapable of looking beyond their own nature, and their attempts to recreate Christmas with the inevitable Halloween influence are wonderfully misguided, transforming the happiest time of the year into something horribly disturbing. People expect to be scared on Halloween, but no one expects their holiday wreath to kill their granny. (On a side note, they should be praised for managing to organise any kind of Yuletide celebrations in such a short time frame – they start after Halloween, and most shops now begin in September at the latest.)

Jack is understandably the most iconic character in the film, and props to Selick and his animators for bringing such a warmth and emotion to what is essentially a skeleton. When he first lands in Christmas Land – the warm colours, cosy homes and twinkling lights in stark contrast to the grey, almost-monochrome world of Halloween Town – his amazement and sense of wonder is instantly conveyed. With only the slightest change in eye-socket-size, Jack Skellington is vulnerable, terrifying, childishly enthusiastic, and world-weary. The rest of the characters are afforded just as much care and attention. Halloween Town is filled with all the creatures and grotesquerie that your nightmares can conceive – all the Universal monsters are present in some guise, and there’s a wonderful array of new characters too. Among my favourites, it’s hard not to love the Mayor, with his alternating faces, and Oogie Boogie, the only real villain in the film, and one of my favourite villains in general. His jazz-inspired number, gambling with the captured Santa Claus’s life, is wonderfully catchy, and genuinely intimidating.

This brings me onto the final point – the music in The Nightmare Before Christmas. While there has(understandably, I would say) been a critical backlash towards Tim Burton in recent years, and also with his continuing collaborations with people who once seemed inspired and now appear unoriginal and lazy, composer Danny Elfman is a perfect match for the unconventional filmmaker. A household name – a rarity for screen composers – Elfman’s soundtrack is perfect here, bringing real emotion to the little stop motion characters on screen. And it’s perhaps surprising to realise just how much of a musical this is – in fact, almost the entire story is relayed in song, and Elfman’s score permeates every scene regardless, bringing life and atmosphere to both Christmas Land and Halloween Town alike.

Although today The Nightmare Before Christmas has become slightly tainted by the over-saturation of film-related products – it’s become one of the ultimate “alternative” films for angsty youngsters, and for a while it seemed like every emo or goth came complete with a Jack Skellington backpack – ignoring all the merchandising and paraphernalia, the film itself remains a triumph. It’s a small world, filled with big characters with even bigger plans, yet at its core, it’s a tender romance, and a film about accepting who you are, about learning to embrace your own natural weirdness. As morals go, it’s a pretty good one.

Film #115: But I’m a Cheerleader (1999)

film 115 but i'm a cheerleader

Rating: 3.5/5

“Oh my god… they were right. I’m a homo. Oh, my god!”

With its lurid colours and Stepford-style 50’s inspired kitsch, But I’m a Cheerleader revels in its campness. Although slightly quaint today – gay rights have come along in leaps and bounds in the last fifteen years – it tackles a serious topic in a overtly tongue-in-cheek manner, revealing the absurdity and hypocrisy of the entirely real schools and camps that promise to rid people of their undesirable homosexual tendencies. In doing so, the film takes a light-hearted satirical dig at the often Christian-based groups who believe that being gay is a lifestyle choice, with heterosexual living being the only desirable, “normal” way of living, while simultaneously downplaying the religious aspect of such camps. Although Megan (Natasha Lyonne) is openly Christian, and the facility her straight-laced parents send her is clearly inspired by the Christian “conversion camps”, once the girl’s lodged at True Directions, there is no real mention of religion in the rest of the film. While this seems slightly like a missed opportunity, it safeguards against possible backlash – despite the controversial subject matter, the film is inoffensive and entertaining, with the blossoming romance at its core often surprisingly tender.

Megan is first introduced living her normal life – she has a boyfriend, although she doesn’t appear to like kissing him much, says grace before dinner, is polite and well spoken, and is a cheerleader. Arriving home one day, she finds herself confronted with her well-meaning friends and family, who proceed to inform her of her latent homosexuality. She has to be a lesbian, because she’s a vegetarian. She has pictures of women in her locker, and posters of gay icons on her bedroom walls. Despite her insistence that she’s not gay, she’s packed off to True Directions, a Barbie-esque residential facility in the middle of nowhere, where she has to complete five steps before she graduates, a happy and well adjusted heterosexual. At the camp, she meets a small but varied group of other teens – an androgynous girl with a shaved head, a flamboyant boy, a Jew (further distancing the film from its overtly Christian inspirations), a goth, a varsity quarterback, and a girl called Graham (Clea DuVall), who seems certain to be ejected from the course due to her insolence and disdain for the whole project.

There are plenty of funny moments – the group’s admissions regarding what “made them gay” are particularly absurd, ranging from “my mother got married in pants” to “I was born in France.” Curiously, however, despite the film taking great pains to show that being gay doesn’t mean necessarily conforming to the expected stereotype, these are almost validated by Megan’s realisation that she is a lesbian – despite their “evidence” being entirely circumstantial, her family and friends are ultimately proved right. In contrast, True Direction’s methodology conforms entirely to heterosexual gender stereotypes. The girls all wear frilly pink dresses and practise childcare and cleaning, the boys dress in blue and learn mechanics and sports. All the tasks are, however, saturated in homoeroticism, which is particularly obvious with the boys’ classes – “accidental” pelvic thrusting during a car maintenance class, for example. It’s not exactly subtle, but it’s effective, bringing a surreal camp twist to everyday activities – in the end, the film seems to be saying, there’s queerness in everyone.

At its core, of course, is Megan’s relationship with Graham, and it’s a slowly developing romance that delicately reveals the intricacies of flirtation. Ironically, of course, if her parents hadn’t made her confront her unrealised gayness, Megan would quite possibly have lived out her days in precisely the kind of denial True Directions aims to teach, shacked up with her jock boyfriend in a sexless marriage. Instead, her incarceration at the facility enables her to finally stop living a lie – admitting her homosexuality is the first step, and a gay relationship is the inevitable conclusion. It’s in the conclusion that the film really falters – there are no surprises (except the discovery that Megan’s cheerleading abilities are thoroughly underwhelming), and it ends abruptly. Megan and Graham are the only characters who really find any kind of resolution, and it’s a shame that the fates of the majority of the True Directions camp remain unknown. Do the camp’s male mentor Mike (played by uber famous drag queen RuPaul) and the owner’s obviously gay son finally acknowledge their attraction for each other? Is the conversion really a success when only a tiny fraction of students end up graduating? Do the graduates accept their gayness, or do they live in denial? Is there a happy ending for anyone, really? Who knows. Yet despite the weak ending, the film itself is entertaining, revelling in campness and knowingly addressing the nuances of gender and sexuality in particularly unsubtle ways. Fun, light-hearted, flamboyant yet touching, But I’m a Cheerleader starts to wear thin in the end, and its satire might not be as biting as people might like, but it’s a welcome alternative to the traditional teen/ high school movies so prevalent in the late 90s.