Film #4: Slacker (1991)

film 4 slacker
Rating: 3/5

“Who’s ever written a great work about the immense effort required in order not to create?”

Composed as a series of linear vignettes, Richard Linklater’s second feature film – the film that gained him early recognition as an interesting new indie director – is overly long, but oddly hypnotic. On the surface it seems simple in both its premise and its direction, though considering it more thoroughly, Slacker is impressive precisely because of this simplicity.

Set in Austin, Texas, on a sunny summer’s day, we become privy to brief glimpses into a variety of people’s lives – little portions of conversations, many of which take the form of extended speeches, rather than an exchange between two people. Each character leads to another, who leads to another, creating a film that is constant in its style and, despite the seemingly meandering nature, quite specific in its intent.

It is misleading to claim this is a comedy, although it is almost inevitable that at least one of the many anecdotes, opinions, and general musings will amuse – among this vast cast of unnamed unknowns, it is likely that something will ring true, and in that truth will come humour. Or perhaps one of the stranger stories – the conspiracy theorist whittling on about the moon landings, or the woman who prophesies the death of the next person to walk past them – will get some laughs. Or maybe it will simply be that, by succumbing to the constant, pointless onslaught of inane ramblings, exasperation becomes bemusement.

Slacker is almost entirely devoid of music, having no score to accompany it. This, coupled with the seemingly never-ending connections between the stories, makes the film seem long – too long, really. There is no way of gauging when (or if!) it will finish – it is not a circular film, the characters do not share some clever relationship with each other that results in everything being neatly tied up, there is no greater purpose that unites them. It starts to feel self-indulgent, particularly in the final section, which reeks of indie art student and seems both forced and pretentious. It is as though Linklater himself couldn’t find a way to stop following first one person, then another, down the wide, empty streets of Austin, and decided to show that the film is not like the aimless characters it contains, but a work of art with a purpose. And perhaps it is, for it achieves a certain tone very successfully; the unrelated nature of the stories all share a central theme, that of (mostly) young, educated adults filled with ideas and opinions but lacking any sense of direction or motivation. So they sit in coffee shops discussing politics, or stand on street corners fighting the system with home made t-shirts, or they stay in bed because going to the lake is something one has to prepare for. As the camera follows them, the world passes them by.

In recent years, Linklater has become more mainstream, directing films such as School of Rock (2003) and Me and Orson Welles (2008). Slacker is a curio, and it’s easy to see why it has become an indie classic – slow, aesthetically simple with an emphasis on realism, even down to its mundanity, it is understated but well filmed, monotonous but engrossing. After watching it, it is difficult to remember the majority of the vignettes, but the overarching atmosphere lingers.

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Cinema Lottery #1

cinema 1 stoker

Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters 3D
Rating: 2/5

Latest in the trend of reinventing classic fairy tales, this sees Hansel and Gretel all grown up, hardened from their childhood encounter with the candy-obsessed witch of the Grimm story. Now globe-travelling witch hunters, they come up against a most formidable opponent, Muriel (Famke Janssen, effectively reprising her role as Dark Phoenix in X-Men 2).

This is mindless trash with little obvious intent to achieve anything more than forgettable entertainment; more Van Helsing than, say, Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty. As such, it is fairly effective, although considering things, there is little to praise. Gemma Arterton looks good in leather pants, while Jeremy Renner’s two-time Oscar-nominated acting talents are completely absent. The 3D is utilised exclusively as a gimmick, which is more satisfying than the current trend for “artistic” and “subtle” (read: pointless) uses. Following his far superior Nazi-zombie film, Dead Snow (2009), writer/director Tommy Wirkola’s more mainstream offering is silly and humourless, but it’s short and inoffensive.

In the House

Rating 3.5/5

Francois Ozon’s latest is an odd little movie with some interesting themes, touching upon concepts of literature, inspiration, teacher-student relations, art appreciation, jealousy, and growing up. Finding one student’s writing assignment more interesting than the rest of the class’s more vacuous offerings, literature teacher Germain (Fabrice Luchini) takes him under his wing and provides him with extra tutelage, encouraging him to foster his ideas, which focus on what happens in the home of his friend, the nice-but-dim Rapha.

Fact and fiction begin to melt together as the student’s writing changes from observation to creation; scenes start to blur together as the fictional characters, based on real characters, are reinvented. This is well done, and it is interesting to see Claude’s story come to life. Although light-hearted, there is an uncomfortable undercurrent of tension running throughout; as Claude, Ernst Umhauer brings an intensity to the role, so that it becomes difficult to properly understand his intentions.

One of the big questions posed is how one concludes a story and, ironically, this is the problem for Ozon also. Germain informs Claude that a great work of literature finishes with a solution that the reader cannot see coming, but, once it comes, they cannot imagine it ending any other way. Whether Ozon achieves this is up for debate, but it is an interesting, thought-provoking and entertaining film, with excellent performances and a delightful score.

Fire with Fire

Rating: 1/5

Absolutely every single aspect of this film is clichéd. Josh Duhamel is trouble-maker-turned-good-guy fire fighter Jeremy, who becomes a key witness in a double homicide (a kindly shopkeeper and his inspirational scholarship kid) and has to go into witness protection. Unfortunately, the bad guys work out where he is and shoot his new girlfriend, one of the Feds tasked with looking after him, who abandons any sense of protocol for love. To save the people he cares about, Jeremy has to turn vigilante, and take out the formidable baddies himself. Early in the film, he makes an impassioned speech to his girlfriend (Rosario Dawson) about how he understands how fire works and moves, and how he says the same thing to every person trapped in a burning building so that they will trust him and do what he asks. No prizes for guessing how it ends.

Bruce Willis features for a few scenes, sporting his trademark knowing smirk; as a cop whose partner was killed by the very same baddies, he is happy to turn a blind eye on Jeremy’s completely illegal activity. Good thing too, because his character is utterly irrelevant. Everyone is a stereotype; Vincent D’Onofrio provides some much needed charisma, but even he, as the head-bad-guy, is ludicrous: not just a well-spoken druglord, but a swastika-covered White Supremacist – just to make it really clear that he is EVIL, in case anyone’s confused.

Not just a stupid film, but a boring one as well, there is absolutely nothing redeemable about Fire with Fire. Action fans will have seen this plot a million times before, in far superior movies. Duhamel is adequate, but there is little anyone can do with such two-dimensional characters to play. Finally, for a film with “fire” in the title, about a firefighter, with an inevitable fire-filled climax, the flames are horribly computerised; in fact, there have been more believable explosions in SyFy’s CGI-riddled straight-to-DVD trash.

Stoker

Rating: 4/5

Most odd about Stoker is that it is written by Wentworth Miller, the pretty guy from Prison Break. And, as it transpires, he can write an interesting screenplay. This is a strange, stylised, slow-burning mystery, directed by Chan-wook Park (Oldboy), with an excellent performance by Mia Wasikowska as India, a young, awkward girl whose father has just died. Following his funeral, his brother arrives to stay in the house; charismatic and handsome, he appears to have some kind of relationship with India’s mother, the newly bereaved Evelyn (Nicole Kidman).

At its core, Stoker is about the uncomfortable relationships between these relatives; India and her mother, her mother and her uncle, her and her uncle. It is also about growing up – the arrival of her uncle sees India beginning to show signs of an awakening sexuality, which is cleverly symbolised by the shoes she receives each birthday. As India, Wasikowska is reminiscent of Wednesday Addams; silent, reclusive, pale as snow, but with a steely sense of self.

Stoker‘s narrative slips towards the end, with a contrived explanation that is necessary but disappointingly uninspired. It does, however, redeem itself by not actually finishing at that point, instead continuing for a few more minutes and finishing on a more satisfying high. Dissecting the plot will reveal holes, but when a film is this stylised, it is easy to suspend disbelief. A well executed, stylish movie, it may divide audiences somewhat, but it shows an unexpected darkness in the mind of Miller, and it will be interesting to see if he continues his screenwriting endeavours.

Side Effects

Rating 3.5/5

Steven Soderbergh’s latest reunites him with his Magic Mike lead, Channing Tatum, for an altogether different kind of movie. Here, he delves into the twisted world of psychiatry in America, where every suggestion of dysfunction is fixed with another pill. Rooney Mara is Emily, a young wife whose husband (Tatum) has just got out of jail for insider trading. Despite this good news, Emily is troubled, and after a failed suicide attempt, agrees to meet with Dr Banks (Jude Law) for treatment. He prescribes her a range of pills, culminating in Ablixa, but during a sleep-walking bout, the side effect of the drug, she stabs and kills her husband. At this point, the film’s focus shifts from Emily, to Dr Banks, whose reputation is seriously damaged as a result of this unfortunate incident.

For the majority of the film, Soderbergh provides an intriguing, and often surprisingly tense, situation that raises subtle but powerful questions about the prevalence of prescription drugs, and the dependency on them to cure every ill and whim found in America. From psychiatrists paid to participate in drug trials on behalf of the pharmaceutical companies, to the extended advertisments on television, these are seen as a quick fix. However, this all crumbles in an illogical and misconceived plot twist, in which a central character reveals a daft conspiracy that effectively makes the clever politics of the film irrelevant. This is a shame, because without this twist, the film is far more interesting. After the big reveal, it becomes little more than a well-made, well-acted murder mystery; effective, yes, but disappointing in its conclusion.

Film #3: Quatermass and the Pit (1967)

film 3 quatermass and the pit

Rating: 3.5/5

“You realise what you’re implying? That we owe our human condition here to the intervention of insects?”

Also released as Five Million Years to Earth, Quatermass and the Pit is the third in a series of Hammer films, originating from a BBC television series. It received favourable reviews on its release in 1967, and today is considered to be one of the UK’s finest sci-fi movies. Michael Weldon, in his review in The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film, describes it as “the best of the series and one of the better science-fiction movies ever made.”

Scottish actor Andrew Keir is excellent as Professor Bernard Quatermass, a rocket scientist and head of the British Experimental Rocket Group, an organisation that has just been reclaimed by the military, much to the professor’s disgust. It is, however, because of this new situation that Quatermass first learns of the strange objects discovered in Hobbs Lane underground station, London, where renovations are taking place.

After first discovering oddly shaped skulls, which palaeontologist Dr Roney deduces are one of the missing evolutionary links dating back some five million years, a metal – but non-magnetic – object is located beneath the mud and clay. Initially assuming it is an unexploded German bomb left over from WWII, the professor’s new associate Colonel Breen and, by default, Quatermass are brought in to investigate. It becomes clear, however, that the object is not a bomb, but some kind of vessel, containing gigantic insect-like creatures, and exuding an unsettling and harmful influence on both objects and people around it.

Nigel Kneale wrote both the television series and the film adaptation of this story, and several plot points are inevitably altered for this later version. Praised for writing intelligent sci-fi, his scripts are filled with clever concepts, but in this film at least, the plot is convoluted, moving at great speed and relying on everyone’s assumptions being utterly correct without other possible alternatives.

Some of the special effects are undeniably hokey – not just when viewed today, but surely for audiences of the time, who had already been subjected to grand and impressive Martian invasions (The War of the Worlds, 1953) and giant insect attacks (Them!, 1954) a decade earlier. As intelligent sci-fi films go, this is a late addition to a trend that was phenomenally successful in the 1950s, influenced by earlier authors such as HG Wells, and by more contemporary writers like Richard Matheson and John Wyndham. By the late 1960s, aliens had invaded Earth for almost every reason possible; they had arrived in peace and with designs for domination, had been fearsome and harmless, had brought about destruction and provided a glimmer of hope to the world. Kneale’s decision here, however, is a curious concept, in which the aliens had landed millions of years previously, had already influenced the evolution of humanity, and now were only posing a threat because of the residual power of their spaceship – unusually for a sci-fi movie, these aliens died a long time ago, and remain so.

Being a Hammer production, it is inevitable that some supernatural events feature, but the script cleverly twists local superstition into a pseudo-scientific phenomenon. The kinetic and psychic power emanating from the vessel results in the film culminating in horror – violent, unsettling scenes in which buildings collapse, roads are ripped apart, vast demonic apparitions loom over London, and crowds of hapless reporters are transformed into an army of single-minded killers. Although his name is in the title, Quatermass actually has little to do with stopping this wave of destruction, though he does provide an explanation for the events.

A quintessentially British film, this oozes Englishness from every pore. Everyone is delightfully polite, even sworn enemies, while a stiff upper lip is adopted by everyone, unless they have succumbed to manic hysteria and delusions. Even Dr Roney’s associate, who appears to be employed simply because he has a similarly shaped cranium to prehistoric man, seems perfectly fine with the idea that he is a modern-day example of an unevolved human. Viewed today, it’s wonderfully retro, but it still packs a punch both in its visual flair and its intelligent, if somewhat garbled, ideas.

Film #2: The Killer Shrews (1959)

film 2 the killer shrews

Rating: 2.5/5

“I don’t ask questions, because it’s against my principles, but would you mind explaining that?”

Directed by Ray Kellogg, who also made The Giant Gila Monster (which will be discussed at a later date), The Killer Shrews is one of many 50s horror films featuring monstrous, mutated creatures. Here, said creatures are shrews, whose genetics have been modified by Dr Craigis and his associates on a remote island. Their attempts to isolate specific strands of DNA serve a noble cause – to combat over-population by making humans much smaller, but with greater metabolisms (and, therefore, a longer life span) – but an unfortunate side effect in their experimentation has left them trapped in their compound, surrounded by hundreds of gigantic, mutant shrews… with a hurricane on its way!

With only seven people in the cast – six men, and 1957’s Miss Universe, Swedish beauty Ingrid Goude – who will be devoured by the starving genetic monstrosities? The choices are: said Swedish beauty, her loving, harmless father Dr Craigis, her drunk, violent ex-fiance (and the man responsible for allowing the shrews to escape and populate the island), a work-obsessed, socially awkward geneticist, the handsome and authoritative sailor who has brought much needed supplies to the island, his ethnic minority comedy sidekick, and Dr Craigis’ ethnic minority servant – no prizes for working out which members of this small group survive. It is worth saying, however, that their method of escaping is utterly inspired, and the climactic sequence is one of the main reasons for the film’s ongoing popularity.

The Killer Shrews has also become famous for its title characters. Close-ups reveal the beasts to have not one, but two pairs of gigantic, poison-tipped canines, and rabid expressions in their wide, bulging eyes. These monsters, usually seen only in portions through knots in the wooden face surrounding the building, are rather grotesque, though largely inanimate. For chase scenes, the huge shrews are, famously, coon dogs with big hairy rugs on their backs. Kellogg never really allows the viewer to witness these beasts, however, filming them in long shot or partially hidden by fences and foliage and, consequently, if one can suspend one’s disbelief, they are really not bad foes for such a low-budget production. These cannibalistic bone-eaters, now giant, will resort to any means necessary in order to eat, and they prove to be determined and effective – although why they choose to burrow through the building’s walls, but not under the wafer-thin yard fence, is anyone’s guess.

With the exception of Goude, who appears to have been hired solely on her looks, the acting is acceptable, even good, for such a small production. Dr Radford Baines, the quiet geneticist, is a sympathetic character, while Ken Curtis is suitably repulsive as drunken Jerry. Kellogg, who was better known for his special effects work than his directing, does an adequate job – the film’s classical score is effective in building tension and excitement, and the narrative is well-paced (albeit rather manic towards the end). The hurricane is the biggest let down. An obvious MacGuffin, existing solely to trap everyone on the island and to give Kellogg a reason to use multiple stock footage lightning shots (and one rather impressive shot in which a tree is struck and crashes to the ground), the calm waters and slightly cloudy skies are not great signifiers of an imminent natural disaster.

The ongoing popularity of The Killer Shrews is most obviously demonstrated by the fact that it has spawned a sequel! In 2012, Return of the Killer Shrews saw James Best, who played Thorne, the film’s hero, return to the island, a mere fifty-three years after his first visit. Unfortunately it is not available to buy. I guess the original will have to do.

Film #1: The Horror of Party Beach (1964)

film 1 horror of party beach

Rating: 2/5, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not good.

“Tina’s death has affected a great many people… but it doesn’t give you or anyone else the right to be discourteous.”

Directed by Del Tenney, The Horror of Party Beach is a low-budget cult classic featuring lots of bikini-clad bums, a slumber party massacre, radioactive zombie mutations, and music by the Del-Aires. It featured in the hugely influential 1979 book by Harry and Michael Medved, The 50 Worst Films of All Time, and was “riffed” on Mystery Science Theater 3000 in 1997, cementing its “bad movie” status. Today it occupies 94th spot on IMDB’s Bottom 100 list.

As bad movies go, Tenney’s film, shot in just three weeks with an estimated budget of $120 000, really isn’t that bad. The plot, in which illegally dumped radioactive waste seeps into the ocean, transforming some drowned corpses into horrific, blood-thirsty sea monsters who attack a beach party, is fairly typical for the genre, and the movie enjoyed reasonable success on its release. The acting is mediocre, but inoffensive, while the Del-Aires provide delightfully catchy songs such as Zombie Stomp to jiggle around to.

The longevity of these bad movies, however, depends on their flaws and Tenney has provided several for our entertainment. Most obviously jarring is the sound editing throughout the film; as lead Elaine (who looks at least ten years older than her teen friends), Alice Lyon’s performance is completely dubbed, and she doesn’t appear to be alone in receiving this post-production treatment. The Del-Aires’ “live” beach performances rarely correlate to the studio-quality sound and, for some inexplicable reason, two girls stalked by one of the monsters as they walk home at night have an entire conversation by talking over each other. Yet at times the music is effective. Tenney has created a discomforting score of alien, shrieking sounds reminiscent of those that accompany the monster in another bad classic, Monster A-go Go (1965); here too, these noises signify the immanent appearance of the murderous creatures. The Del-Aires, who feature prominantly in the first half hour, no longer serve a logical purpose following the beach party massacre, appearing only twice in the remainder of the film (at a dance following the slaughter of twenty teenage girls at a slumber party, and in the closing credits) – despite the movie being billed as the “first horror monster musical!”

The monsters themselves are clearly humans in monster suits who, despite their sea-faring origins, are even more ungainly in the water than they are on land. There are two different versions, although this is actually acknowledged and explained in the script, when it is explained that not all humans look the same, so why should radioactive sea zombies? Their prey is almost exclusively teenage girls – poor Tina meets her demise first, after causing an oddly acrobatic brawl due to her flirtatious dance with a biker before dramatically running into the water for a nice swim. She is killed when one of the monsters smears chocolate sauce all over her (sorry, when she is brutally slashed and mutilated), but some of the deaths later on are shown in grisly close-up; in fact, The Horror of Party Beach had to be heavily cut to gain a certification in the UK.

There are portions of Tenney’s film that take on a strangely hypnotic quality. The initial creation of the monsters sees a human skull being slowly transformed into a gilled beast, not unlike the iconic Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954); revealed through time-lapse photography and smoke-filled disolves, it is a surreal and unearthly scene, filmed on a stage with superimposed (and, consequently, transparent) fish swimming by obliviously. Tenney uses camera trickery in the final scene also, when a large number of monsters unite for the final showdown against Elaine, her father and important scientist Dr Gavin, and Elaine’s love interest Hank. To compensate for the limited number of monster costumes, Tenney loops the same footage on top of itself, creating a jerky, sped-up army of uncoordinated yet identical creatures.

But, of course, despite some memorable moments, this is not a good movie. The final battle takes place during the day, or at night, depending on which character is on screen. The script is shoddy despite featuring some classic lines (such as the one mentioned above) mixed in with cheesy, cringeworthy jokes, while the narrative coherence is tenuous at best – it is strange, for example, that the superstitious house maid Eulabelle’s suggestion that the murders are human in origin is quickly dismissed by Dr Gavin, the logical scientist who is instantly convinced that they are the terrible deeds of a previously undiscovered sea beast. It is even stranger that these monsters are defeated by sodium, the sixth most common element on Earth, and a substantial component in salt.

When The Horror of Party Beach was first released, cinema patrons had to sign a “fright release,” which absolved management of any responsibility should they be literally scared to death. Today, it’s doubtful any viewer will be so sheltered from contemporary levels of gore that dying is a possibility, but it is an enjoyable, daft, kitsch affair that continues to entertain. Michael Weldon describes it as a “low budget gem” and a “cool classic” in The Psychotronic Encylopedia of Film, while Stephen King includes it amongst his favourite films. And with that, everybody do the zombie stomp, doo-doo-doo-doop!