Films #92-95: Ed Wood Marathon

film 92 93 94 95 ed woodathon

Ratings: The Violent Years (1956), 2.5/5; Night of the Ghouls (1959), 3/5; The Sinister Urge (1960), 2.5/5; Ed Wood (1994), 5/5

“I look at this slush and I try to remember, at one time I made good pictures.” – Johnny Ryde, The Sinister Urge

Edward D Wood Jr is a fascinating character; those who have heard of him will probably already know all the famously quirky anecdotes surrounding him – he was a transvestite, he was the worst director of all time, Plan 9 From Outer Space is the worst film of all time. He is best known for three movies: his debut feature Glen or Glenda; mad scientist movie Bride of the Monster; and sci-fi/ horror hybrid Plan 9 (it’s also these three films that feature in Tim Burton’s big budget biopic). The films I watched for this Woodathon represent some of his lesser known features. Arguably none of them are as “bad” as his better known films, and probably none are as entertaining as a result. What is important to remember is that being known as the “worst director of all time” doesn’t mean that there can’t be moments that work – Night of the Ghouls in particular, while obviously low budget, actually suggests the writer-director-editor-actor-producer wasn’t entirely oblivious to his previous films’ failings. But more on that later.

First up, The Violent Years. Written by Wood, this juvenile delinquency movie is directed by William Morgan, better known as an editor (his work includes several episodes of Lassie, and Portrait of Jennie). While the language is clearly Woodian, the picture itself is a far more gloomy affair: particularly in later years, with long-time collaborator William Thompson working as Director of Photography, Wood’s films were visually sparse, but crisp, and this sharpnesss is missing from this movie. The plot itself is fairly unremarkable – a judge introduces the story (to add gravitas) of a young girl who, not receiving any attention from her parents, turns to a life of crime with her girlfriends. It’s a typical kind of movie for the time, with a typical kind of conclusion not dissimilar from the earlier exploitation pictures – it serves both as titillation (girl gangs, guns, fights, lots of smooching, and even the implied rape of a young man by the gang) and as a warning against considering such a lifestyle, cheekily justifying the presentation of such titillation in the first place. Jean Moorhead is good as Paula Perkins, the leader of the gang; the rest of the girls are non-distinct. Poor Mr and Mrs Perkins get all the blame – at barely an hour in length, oddly the “violent years” themselves are notably brief and Wood’s script gets significantly more preachy as it progresses, with the judge berating the parents and, oddly, claiming that a return to religion would fix this ghastly teenage problem. An interesting, short little curio, the film is largely unremarkable, though undoubtedly benefits from the Wood connection.

Next, Night of the Ghouls. This is Wood’s best known later film and, at the risk of sounding controversial, one of his most interesting movies. It’s his most light-hearted picture, and his most self-aware; it’s also his first feature film not to star Bela Lugosi. This is a shame, because Dr Acula (yes, you’ve read that correctly) is in many ways a role made for Lugosi, initially at least – Kenne Duncan, a legitimate actor with over 270 credited roles, does bring some authenticity to the performance, and seems to be having fun with the ridiculous, tongue-in-cheek premise.

After a strange introduction from legendary hack psychic Criswell, appearing as himself, which includes some vague social commentary about the youth of today (over footage of Ed Wood himself and Wood regular Conrad Brooks having a fight outside an icecream parlour before a car spins wildly out of control and careens down a cliff) Night of the Ghouls starts properly. Despite this introduction, the film is actually about a fake medium, Dr Acula (aka Carl), who preys on mourners for monetary gain. It’s also a kind-of sequel to Bride of the Monster – Acula’s home is built on the ground of the house on Willows Lake, and characters specifically refer to the events of that film. Lobo (Tor Johnson) also features here, having apparently survived the atomic blast that ended Bride of the Monster; so too does Kelton the Cop (Paul Marco), who confuses matters even more by lamenting his latest assignment: his remarks of “Monsters! Space people! Mad doctors!” implicitly also refers to this characters’ appearance in Plan 9 as well.

And there’s more: there’s a crude “Wanted” poster on the wall of the police station, with a headshot of Wood himself below. The lieutenant (Duke Moore, another acting veteran) does his entire investigation wearing a top hat and tails, most probably so that Wood could include a whole section of the short film Final Curtain in this production (legend has it that Lugosi was reading the script for Final Curtain when he died). But most interesting are Acula’s methods of conning his victims. His seances, which take place in barely constructed sets (lots of curtains, bits of carpet lining parts of the floor), include some particularly shoddy effects – a trumpet floats, with the strings holding it up clearly visible in the shadow; a person wearing a sheet (yes, really) crab-walks across the frame; a cup and saucer bob around in front of yet another curtain. These effects are terrible, yet no worse than the UFOs in Plan 9, but – and here’s the point, they are revealed to be fake. On first viewing, knowing the infamy of Wood’s previous films, it’s easy to revel in the ridiculousness of his effects, but the joke is on us in the end. Perhaps I’m reading too much into it (it’s easy to do with Wood’s movies), but surely the fact that he actually includes a flying (cup and) saucer is a deliberate nod to his previous film’s inadequacies?

Night of the Ghouls, for whatever reason, has never received as much notoriety as Wood’s earlier movies – it’s best known for being the movie that remained unreleased for twenty-three years due to the director being unable to pay the lab processing fees. Perhaps part of the reason it is not as cherished as Plan 9 or Glen or Glenda is that, quite simply, it lacks the naivety of these badfilm classics. It seems as though Wood is having fun here, but also that he is at least somewhat aware of his limitations and, importantly, he’s intentionally playing with the audience’s expectations. In the realm of badfilm, even the weakest attempts at self-awareness are not particularly embraced – it’s the innocence and unintentional badness that captivates people, and with Wood in particular no one wants to believe that he was ever anything other than enthusiastic, but hopeless.

Next, The Sinister Urge. This film serves as a warning against pornography and “smut” pictures, taking on a similar format to The Violent Years. Ironically, it is the last feature film Wood made before his descent into pornography (see One Million AC/DC as one of the last surviving Wood pictures). Much like The Violent Years, it is neither a particularly good movie, nor is it bad enough to be considered one of Wood’s “masterpieces” – as much as people may not want to admit it, his later films did contain significantly more acceptable filmmaking standards, suggesting that the man was learning and developing his technique. The Sinister Urge is fairly unmemorable, save a few moments: one includes an entirely unrelated fight that takes place in an icecream shop – yes, that’s Wood and Brooks grappling around in the sand, with the scene taken from Night of the Ghouls. In typical Wood fashion, there are some winks to the Wood-universe: posters for his previous films line the walls of one of the smut directors, who says they are “made by friends of mine.” There’s also a large subplot about a girl arriving in Hollywood from a small town that is repeated in (or taken from) Hollywood Rat Race, a truly fascinating book written by Wood on how to “succeed in Hollywood.” Other than that, the film is generally unremarkable – there’s a brief moment of actual nudity, which is unusual, and there’s a fun game to be had in seeing just how many outfits Jean Fontaine’s porn-kingpin wears over the seventy minutes, but it’s a fairly dry movie, with too much time spent in the police station and, for a film all about the porn business, not half enough nudity.

Interestingly, none of these films are mentioned in Ed Wood, Tim Burton’s fanboy biopic. It’s a wonderful film nonetheless, inspired by Rudolf Grey’s excellent biography, Nightmare of Ecstasy, with Johnny Depp bringing a wonderful, boyish energy to the enigmatic director. Yet it’s as much a film about Lugosi as it is about Wood – Martin Landau is superb as the former star, and he deservedly won an Oscar for his performance (ironically Lugosi never received such acclaim). The film emphasises the friendship between the director and star – and, by all accounts, they truly were friends, with a mutual respect and admiration at the core of their relationship. It is, of course, a highly stylised biopic, with plenty of liberties taken; whole sections are fabricated, including an important pep-talk Wood receives from his (real) hero Orson Welles – so too is the way in which Plan 9 is finally shown to the world. Yet all the strangest, weirdest bits are true: the stolen octopus and its missing motor; the entire cast and crew getting baptised in a swimming pool so that Plan 9 would get its funding; the reasons for Bride of the Monster ending with a nuclear bomb… And there are parts that may or may not be true – not even Grey manages to establish the “truth” in his biography, with personal anecdotes contradicting each other and Wood himself reiterating myths and legends.

Burton’s biopic, as loving and inoffensive as possible, glosses over the darker side of Wood – the film ends with Plan 9‘s first screening, and only alludes to the filmmaker’s troubles after that – and is arguably as instrumental as the Medveds in establishing the cult of Ed Wood. Shot in black and white, it’s ironically a big budget, expertly shot, well crafted movie, one that pays homage to Wood but never makes fun of him, presenting him as always optimistic, charismatic and handsome, filled with enthusiasm, surrounded by a random assortment of Hollywood rejects (portrayed with aplomb by the likes of Bill Murray, Jeffrey Jones and, in a particular coup, bona fide wrestling legend George “the Animal” Steele as Tor Johnson) yet always upbeat and prepared for success that somehow never quite materialises.

I always wonder how Wood would have felt about his films being considered some of the “worst of all time.” He died two years before the Medveds’ readers voted him worst director, a bloated, homeless alcoholic. While today his fans like to think he would be pleased at his films’ current popularity, surely it would sting just a little to know the reasons for their fame? As he said, in Hollywood Rat Race: “It’s terrible to hear someone say about someone else’s work, ‘Ahh, that stinks.’ Yet the critic probably couldn’t ink his way out of a paper bag. You put it on paper. Good, bad, or indifferent. At least you had the guts to put it there.”


Film #91: The Human Monster (1939)

film 91 the human monster

This review is my contribution to the Great Villain Blogathon, hosted by Speakeasy, Silver Screenings and Shadows and Satin – be sure to check out the other entries!

Rating: 3/5

“You have been very foolish, Lou. You are blind, and you cannot speak. But you can hear – and that will never do!”

Warning: Spoilers!

Of all the movie villains – and there are many – Bela Lugosi remains one of the most prolific and iconic. Thanks to his distinctive accent, he was inevitably cast as the bad guy; there are only a handful of his Hollywood roles in which he gets to be the hero. While Dracula may be his most famous role – the role that propelled him to stardom, in a film that helped to establish Universal Studios as the place for horror – The Human Monster reveals him at his most villainous. There’s nothing redeemable about his character here: he’s motivated by sheer greed; exploits the less fortunate; and calmly, ruthlessly commits acts of murder for the most petty of reasons – money. Whereas Dracula was at least a tortured, tragic figure, Dr Orloff is a truly nasty piece of work – a horrible, cruel monster – and Lugosi excels in the role.

The Human Monster, also released as The Dark Eyes of London, is a particularly gloomy film – based on a novel by Edgar Wallace, it’s a detective-thriller that was rated “H for horrific” by the British Film Board (a far more promising and evocative rating than today’s boring 12A, 15, etc!) and, for a low budget, old, sometimes shoddy picture, it still deserves that classification. Released in the USA by Poverty Row studio Monogram, it signals the beginning of Lugosi’s career descent (ending in posthumously appearing in Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space) but allows the character actor to flourish in a leading role at a time when the major studios were distancing themselves from him. Indeed, The Human Monster is just one of five films that Lugosi made in 1939, including the delightfully bonkers The Phantom Creeps and Son of Frankenstein, in which Lugosi steals the show in minor role Ygor.

The plot is a fairly convoluted one: Lugosi is Dr Orloff, an insurance salesman who, for about ten seconds, appears to be a kindly and charitable man. As well as fronting the money for people struggling to pay their insurance premiums, he is the most significant benefactor for Dearborn’s Home for the Destitute Blind, a place where homeless blind men can stay and develop skills that will enable them to live more productively. Yet Orloff’s not the good man he appears; the shelter helps him to cover up his horrible schemes. Despite his care, the number of men found drowned in the Thames, all of whom have received their life insurance from Orloff’s company, raise suspicions, and Scotland Yard’s finest, Larry Hoult (Hugh Williams) is soon on the case. He’s helped by his new comedy sidekick partner, a mysoginistic trigger-happy Chicago cop, and Diana (Greta Gynt), the daughter of one of the recently deceased who is determined to track down her father’s killer.

The crux of the film is that the blind men offer the perfect foil for Orloff’s evil deeds – he relies on their inability to see so that he can carry out his plans without any witnesses. The men, mostly elderly and particularly doddery, are a pathetic bunch – they shuffle around like zombies, live in austere conditions seemingly oblivious to everything going on around them. Despite never really being the film’s focus, they are explicitly presented as helpless and pitiable. It is Orloff’s interaction with these poor souls that really reveals him to be a horrific character: one man, Lou, who is already blind and mute, is subjected to the most horrendous cruelty after attempting to warn a man of Orloff’s plans. Poor Lou, bedridden and already robbed of two methods of communication, is calmly, unceremoniously deafened with some ominous machine, leaving him now mute, deaf and blind – trapped entirely in his own body until he is eventually put out of his misery some time later. It’s a brutal and particularly tasteless moment, and Lugosi doesn’t even flinch as he commits such terrible acts.

As with the majority (if not all) horror films of the time, eventually good prevails – there’s a pretty impressive twist that I won’t give away, but ultimately Orloff is defeated, meeting an end that so many of Lugosi’s villains meet, at the hands of his henchman. But this remains categorically Lugosi’s film: he gives it his all, as he always did, and matches his naturally theatrical charisma with a rarer brutality. Indeed, it’s his suave, debonair appearance and the twinkle in his eye that makes Orloff’s monstrousness that much more distressing. While he’s better known for other roles – and certainly, there are plenty of others that have rightly received more attention – The Human Monster is easily one of his most disturbing, brutal and downright sadistic films: as a Lugosi fan, there are few films of his that I don’t in some way root for him, no matter how evil he’s supposed to be, but in this, even I was cheering his eventual demise.

Film #90: Step Up 3 (2010)

film 90 step up 3

Rating: 2.5/5

“Some people learn to dance… Others are born to.”

The third of the Step Up franchise is also the third of the series to be randomly selected, leaving only Step Up 2: The Streets, the second and best, still to come. In my review of Step Up 4: Miami Heat, I claimed that the fourth instalment was the weakest in terms of plot – I’d clearly forgotten just how stupid Step Up 3 was. While Miami Heat offers little originality, it at least does generally make sense; Step Up 3, in contrast, is completely incoherent, despite its simplicity. Scenes follow no real sense of logic, narratively speaking, the story weaves and meanders without any obvious sense of direction, and characters that have barely been afforded any screen time suddenly switch sides and become the enemy in scenes that are evidently intended to be shocking and emotional, yet fail absolutely because you’re too distracted trying to work out who they were beforehand. It’s a strange, jumbled mess of a movie, but luckily, on first viewing at least, it’s easy to be distracted by the dancing that, as expected, dominates and impresses.

Step Up 3
does at least acknowledge its predecessor: while Briana Evigan (star of The Streets) is absent, Part 3 follows surprise hit Moose, the small, curly haired kid whose secret love of dance helps kickstart the development of the crew in Part 2, and Camille (Alyson Stoner) who also provides a nod to the franchise’s first film – she’s Channing Tatum’s character’s little sister. Here, it’s established that actually Moose and Camille have been super BFFs their whole lives. The two arrive at NYU, where their friendship is quickly tested after Moose accidentally upsets dance “house” (a crew, basically) the Samuri in an impromptu dance-off, where he is spotted by the leader of another “house”, the Pirates. Naturally the two houses have a long feud, stemming from the former friendship of the two leaders, personality-free eye-candy Luke (Rick Malambri) and evil posh boy Julien (Joe Slaughter), and naturally the two are destined to battle each other at the world’s largest dance jam competition in a few months.

So Moose is the character and heart of the movie, and his friendship (and more?) with Camille seems to be the main crux of the story. Yet it’s not – Luke is also a budding filmmaker and an orphan (?) who has used his entire inheritance to buy a ridiculously cool giant loft apartment for all his friends, each also a misfit and outsider, to live. The problem is that he’s run out of money, and is now relying on the competition prize money to keep them afloat (no one appears to have any kind of job, and the club that they seem to run downstairs apparently makes no money whatsoever, perhaps because none of them can be bothered actually working in it). But that’s not all! Because a random girl, Natalie, who looks the EXACT SAME as Evigan but is an entirely new character, suddenly pops into Luke’s life, seemingly homeless and needing a place to stay. Is it her relationship with Luke that’s the film’s focus? Does she have an ulterior motive? Do we even care?!

I’ve previously said discussing plot is pretty irrelevant in a review of the later Step Up movies: it’s the dancing that matters. That being said, it’s reasonable to expect some semblance of coherence. Putting that aside, what of the dancing? It’s definitely frequent, with most scenes featuring at least a hop or a skip, and draws on a number of then-topical styles – capoiera and parkour in particular. While the competition rounds, punctuated with explosive intertitles that burst onto the screen, are exciting and varied (though there are only two dance-offs before the big finale), the most affective routine is one shared between Moose and Camille – an impressively long single take of them dancing to a remixed “I Won’t Dance” by Fred Astaire through the leafy suburbs of New York. It’s a simple break from the angry fight-dances, and harks back to the glory years of Hollywood musicals in a very pleasant, sweet way.

Initially released as Step Up 3D, this is the first of the series to capitalise on that elusive third dimension, and it does so in traditionally gimmicky ways – it’s clearly a motivating factor in a number of scenes (Luke and Natalie’s slushy-drink escapades, for example) as well as encouraging unconventionally direct interaction between the characters and the audience during the dance routines. Here the characters frequently not only dance to camera, but implicitly break the fourth wall by looking straight at the camera, no doubt hoping to encourage the “engrossing” nature of the 3D, but also adding a certain sense of theatrical, live performance to the film.

By the time the final showdown occurs, there have been so many twists and turns in the plot, it’s difficult to really care about it – it’s not that the stakes are too high, it’s that there seem to be too many of them in the first place. Of course, everything works out in the end – friendships are mended, mortgages secured, love declared and dreams fulfilled (should I have warned of a spoiler there? I doubt the information comes as a surprise). If there is a surprise here, it’s that actually, in retrospect I think Miami Heat is actually marginally better – more entertaining, more logical and, vitally, with better dance sequences. Sorry, Step Up 3.

Film #89: The Raid (2011)

film 89 the raid

Rating: 4.5/5

“Pulling a trigger is like ordering a takeout.”

With The Raid 2 now out in cinemas, it seemed a good time to watch The Raid, an exhilarating and exhausting Indonesian martial arts thriller written and directed by Welsh filmmaker Gareth Evans. After a tiny, brief moment of calm as Rama (Iko Uwais) quietly completes his morning prayer rituals, the film explodes with a flurry of insanely fast punches as he moves onto his exercise regime, and there’s barely a pause from that point on. On release it was met with critical acclaim, and has already found a place among some of the most highly regarded action movies – it featured in a recent Channel 5 list, Empire counted it as one of its top films of the year, and The Skinny writers voted it as their number one. Not bad for a little subtitled movie with a cast and crew of unknowns.

The plot is simple and, at least on the surface, fairly generic: rookie cop Rama is on his first assignment, set the daunting task of infiltrating an ominous high-rise apartment block inhabited by some of the city’s most dangerous criminals. At the top is kingpin Tama Riyadi (Ray Sahetapy), a man who doesn’t even blink an eye as he executes those who have disappointed him, who will calmly swap a gun for a claw hammer when he runs out of bullets. He’s flanked by two men, one a seemingly peaceable, rational type, and the other appropriately named Mad Dog, a slight figure with seemingly boundless energy and an obliviousness to pain. As well as these two formidable characters, the small consignment of police have to face every other inhabitant, all of whom appear to be experts in martial arts, of course.

And it’s here that the film really triumphs, bringing a new form of fighting, pencak silat, to UK audiences. Developed by Uwais and Yayan Ruhian, it’s insanely fast and eye-bogglingly intricate, not to mention utterly brutal – there’s even a corridor sequence to rival the classic scene in Oldboy. While Oldboy‘s fight really portrays the physical toll on the body in a distinctly realistic, unglamourised way, The Raid‘s fight scenes are unrelenting; it seems impossible that these people would be able to carry on, but they do, and the exertion is felt in every punch and kick.

It may seem like a repetitive concept – the young cops, their sergeant and the morally-dubious lieutenant gradually making their way higher up the building, meeting gang after gang of drug-addled maniacs with an impressive arsenal of machetes and guns. Yet it’s never boring: each set piece (of which there are many) is carefully choreographed to offer something new and innovative that obliterates any sense of complacency. There are strobe-filled gun fights, overwhelmingly outnumbered hand-to-hand combat sequences, chases, knives, hell, there’s even an exploding fridge. It’s ludicrous, gratuitous, and entirely riveting. There’s a real flair in Evans’ directing, and the rapid editing drags the viewer into the centre of the action, keeping everything turned firmly up to eleven yet never appearing frantic or out of control, all the while acknowledging that the real star of the film is the fighting itself. The score emphasises this – the soundtrack, by Mike Shinoda (Linkin Park) and Joseph Trapanese, works perfectly, punctuating the action and ramping up the tension even more.

Uwais’ physicality is undeniable, and his performance is captivating as a result, while the rest of the cast (not including the general fodder) bring personality and glimpses of depth to even the less developed characters. Mad Dog in particular is a truly formidable foe; in some ways he’s no more than a crazed Bond villain’s henchman, but despite his stature, he’s easily the most intimidating opponent. The sergeant and lieutenant are also prominent, with the latter in particular proving to have some ulterior motives for his decisions. This brings some intrigue to the narrative, and it twists and turns in some unexpected ways – or, rather, perhaps not quite unexpected, but definitely not unsatisfying.

One of the (few) criticisms of The Raid was its lack of female characters – Rama’s pregnant wife is only seen in bed in the opening scenes, and the other two females that I can think of are entirely irrelevant. Yet this is an unashamedly masculine film; the brute force of the male body on show, while themes of family, revenge, loyalty and respect run along as (admittedly unsubtle) undercurrents. And, it must be said – male or female, martial arts fan or not, it’s difficult to not get caught up in The Raid: it grabs a hold of you and barely lets you breathe until it’s over. As a last thought, I leave you with this question: who would win in a fight, Bruce Lee, Tony Jaa (Ong-bak), or Iko Uwais?

Film #88: Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)

(Quvenzhzé Wallis)

Rating: 4.5/5

“The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right. If one piece busts, even the smallest piece… the entire universe will get busted.”

Generally when the Oscars comes around, there’s a surprise movie included in the Best Film category – a low-budget, indie movie (Her, this year), perhaps, or a genre film (remember when District 9 was nominated?). They rarely (if ever) win, but it’s at least an acknowledgement from the Academy that they exist. In 2013, Beasts of the Southern Wild was nominated for four Oscars – Best Film, Best Director (Benh Zeitlin), Best Actress (the impossibly named Quvenzhané Wallis, the youngest Oscar nominee in this category to date) and Best Adapted Screenplay. It won none of them, inevitably, and perhaps it didn’t deserve to, though arguably it is a more distinctive, memorable movie than that year’s winner Argo and, while it was only a matter of time before Jennifer Lawrence secured her acting gong, based on their nominated performances, Wallis was a far more impressive surprise. Still, the nominations alone gave Beasts of the Southern Wild some much needed publicity. The film itself received very mixed reviews on release; if it had won, it would have surely been a controversial choice.

This is Zeitlin’s first feature film. Based in New Orleans, he is part of a filmmaking collective, Court 13, that had, until this point, concentrated on shorts. The collective has a distinctive style, clearly rooted in their surroundings, and a dedication to their craft that some might argue was downright irresponsible (you can read more about their previous escapades in an article I wrote way back in 2010). Having made the acclaimed, award winning short film Glory at Sea in 2008, Beasts of the Southern Wild feels very much like an continuation of it, both in terms of visuals and plot – though it is in no way a remake or extended version of the same story. Both are clearly motivated by Hurricane Katrina and the events that followed it; both are set in an unnamed community obviously inspired by New Orleans (particularly the poor areas); both reject CGI in favour of man-made objects – notably a distinctive, upcycled kind of world, in which detritus and trash is transformed into homes, boats, and curios. Court 13’s world is, in many ways, a very childish one – one in which they, as adults and filmmakers, continue to make forts out of pillows and sheets, precariously balanced on the backs of chairs and wedged between doors and bookshelves. There’s a very natural, light-hearted, idealistic sensibility at play that somehow manages to met with much divisive response – perhaps distinguishing the cynical from the playful, the young-at-heart from the jaded realists.

Beasts of the Southern Wild presents a fantasy world, one recognisable yet different; the Bathtub, a small community of unemployed drunkards and their grubby children somewhere on the outskirts of the world we are familiar with. It’s a swampy environment, inviting in the way that a jungle is – a place you’d enter with equal measures of trepidation and excitement. There Hushpuppy (Wallis) lives with her alcoholic father, a man clearly incapable of providing any kind of balanced home-life for his child, a parent whose only way of showing love is by making his daughter a survivor. The community, a tight-knit but unromantically presented group of layabouts and boozers, are awaiting the great flood promised by the melting ice caps, and Hushpuppy knows that when the glaciers melt, great prehistoric aurochs (giant tusked boars) will begin their journey to her precious home.

Those who criticised the film challenged its idealistic view, questioning the appropriateness of championing alcoholism, unemployment, and child neglect. Yet the Bathtub is a particularly unglamorous place, and Zeitlin never seems to really endorse the actions of Hushpuppy’s father in particular. The characters, while located in this fantasy-reality, are presented very much as people – flawed people whose motivations and rationale often seem to remain out of our grasp. We only ever get an insight into Hushpuppy’s mind – we are guided by her voice-over narration while on screen she remains mostly silent. Wallis’ perfectly embodies Hushpuppy, this quiet, stoic child who seems in many ways wise beyond her years and in others is naively childish. Without saying a word she brings a pensive, contemplative, determined personality to the character, and it goes without saying that much of the film’s success relies on the audience being willing to follow her journey.

Where Beasts of the Southern Wild falters is the late intrusion of the real world into the fantasyland of the Bathtub. It’s easy to get drawn into the community spirit and strange aesthetic of this district, and it’s disorienting when, all of a sudden, the characters find themselves evacuated by the authorities and dumped in a sterile hospital/shelter. There fantasy and reality clash, and it’s an uncomfortable clash, one further emphasised by the largely unexplained illness plaguing Hushpuppy’s father. Yet this is, happily, a minor blip in the movie, one that perhaps carries more weight on a metaphorical level than an aesthetic or narrative one.

Zeitlin’s film is a curious picture – it feels small, intimate and hand-made, clearly revealing the Court’s motivations and inspirations. It is, of course, strengthened by the events of Hurricane Katrina, but even more than that, it feels so obviously rooted in Louisiana and the atmosphere of the Big Easy – they need never mention the words New Orleans, but there’s no doubt as to where its creators are based. What the film’s critics rarely mention, although it is perhaps the only thing that really encourages its audience to feel as though the world presented is a desirable one, is the soundtrack – a score written by Zeitlin and Dan Romer that brings a playful joy to the movie. The soundtrack is deeply manipulative, directing us to feel elation, sadness, and yet more elation. And that’s really the crux of Beasts of the Southern Wild: it’s a film that, despite the trash and the hardship, is filled with optimism and light. Whether you buy into it or not, well, that’s really up to you.

(Note: you can also read my programme note for Beasts of the Southern Wild here)

Film #87: Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie (1995)

film 87 power rangers the movie

Rating: 2/5

“You egg-sucking purple pinhead! The Rangers are going after the Great Power! I thought you said this guy was the master of disaster. He’s nothing but a slime-infested jelly donut!”

It’s nostalgia time! Much like Masters of the Universe, Power Rangers: The Movie holds little appeal for anyone who didn’t make the mighty morphin’ teenagers a part of their youth. Watching this on old, secondhand (or thirdhand, or fourthhand) VHS, with the sound fading in and out on a regular basis, I was transported back to the mid-90s, when everyone wore colour-coordinated crop tops (including the guys), roller-blading was the coolest thing ever, and all dialogue had to be heavily punctuated by emphatic ninja-esque hand gestures. Yes, the Power Rangers were camp and daft, but they were hugely successful – over the years there have been many new incarnations (with the show still airing on television), but the movie charts the latest exploits of the original, and best, bunch.

Power Rangers: The Movie has the standard, generic plot of most childhood movies: our heroes’ lives are suddenly thrown into turmoil with the reawakening of Ivan Ooze (Paul Freeman), a fiendish villain who had been trapped in a giant buried egg full of gunk for the last six thousand years. Finally freed, he quickly traps the television show’s resident baddies Rita Repulsa and Lord Zedd, trashes the Rangers’ command center and leaves their leader, Zordon, for dead. Summoning the last bit of power available, loyal C-3P0 rip-off robot Alpha 5 pauses in her constant flapping to beam the Rangers off to a remote planet in search for the Great Power, which may restore Zordon and stop the nefarious Ooze from taking over the world.

While most of the staple characters and locations from the television show are acknowledged, this makes pains to distinguish itself as something new (and bigger), and it doesn’t always work. Angel Grove’s resident bullies Bulk and Skull get a few cursory scenes, which seem particularly out of place if you’re not familiar with the tv series. Although it appears that none of the Rangers have parents, the adult population of the fictional town are given some more screentime, becoming oozified zombies thanks to Ooze’s ooze (yes, really) – luckily he still cares about health and safety and gives them all matching outfits and hardhats while they dig up the giant Ectomorphicon Titans (the film’s full of this kind of pseudo-scientific dialogue) that will help him conquer Earth. The titans, when they are finally unveiled, turn out to be giant, shiny, metallic, and supremely dodgy early CGI creations.

The CGI doesn’t stop there, and nor do the alterations. Most disappointingly, the Power Rangers, stripped of their powers early on in the film, never get a chance to fight with their established Zords (the big robots they call from afar to help them fight their battles). In the series, each Ranger would call its Zord, which were cool creatures like Sabretooth tigers, Tyrannosaurus Rexes, and Mastodons, at which point the stock footage from another Japanese show would kick in. Here, on the distant planet Phaedos, the kids are given new animal guides, and the film’s final set piece back on Earth sees them fighting with these new Zords – Crane, Ape, Bear, Falcon, Wolf and… Frog. Even the most ferocious of these is no match for the much cooler prehistoric Zords they’d started of with, and the lack of familiarity is disappointing. The CGI doesn’t help – the fight scenes are a jumble of shoddy effects and rushed imagery, revealing the film’s age more than even the naffest of 90s tropes.

And what of the Rangers themselves? Like He-Man in Masters of the Universe they are the blandest bunch of teens imaginable and, despite being the film’s protagonists, have a mere handful of lines and no character development whatsoever. Tommy, the former brainwashed Green Ranger-turned White Ranger and leader of the gang, and Kimberly (the hot Pink Ranger) at least seem to be vaguely human; the rest interchangeable, distinguished (and characterised) solely by the colour of their outfits, and are only relevant when fighting the latest group of bad guy minions. While the film takes great pains to show the reactions of each individual Ranger at all times, as a group they are utterly devoid of personality. As usual, it’s their evil nemesis who brings some theatricality to the story; Ooze is flamboyant and wicked, generic but a perfectly acceptable (and expected) kind of villain for a family-friendly kids movie of this kind. It’s just a shame that Rita Repulsa and Lord Zedd are so quickly consigned to miniature form and sidelined – each individually easily matches Ooze’s camp personality.

Despite the various problems and, it must be said, disappointments that come along with the film, Power Rangers: The Movie races along – there’s plenty of action to make up for the lack of personality, and the soundtrack in particular really works to convince the viewer that what they’re watching is impressive and important. The pacing is brisk and the various set pieces offer some new (generally mediocre) spectacle to distract from the fact that the story is ridiculous, the acting is sub-par, and the effects are fairly terrible. Admittedly, it’s not actually as camp and fun (in a badfilm sense) as Masters of the Universe, but the nostalgia value was high (this was the very first movie I saw at the cinema without my parents – probably because they’d have done anything to avoid having to sit through it) and, for that reason at least, I left my cynicism (and criticism) at the door and enjoyed the stupidity.

Cinema Lottery #12

cinema 12 noah
Noah, Divergent, The Double, Rio 2

Release date: 4 April 2014
Rating: 4/5

Even prior to release, Darren Aronofsky’s latest film was courting controversy. It’s been banned in several countries, including Bahrain and the UAE, for contradicting the teachings of Islam, and the writer-director has received little support from the Christians, who have also criticised it for its reinterpretation of the Biblical texts. It’s true that Noah is hardly a literal adaptation: it introduces new characters (notably Emma Watson’s Ila and Ray Winstone’s Tubalcain) and expands the role of others (Methuselah, played by Anthony Hopkins); makes the fallen angels (CGI rock-golem creations) instrumental in the Ark’s construction; and draws upon family conflict as motivational factors. Yet for all these alterations and amalgamations, the story feels truly rooted in the Old Testament. Noah (Russell Crowe) is dogmatic and ruthless, yet simultaneously tormented by the difficult choices he is forced to make as a result of following The Creator’s wishes. Throughout the film, issues of faith, salvation, doubt, family, honour and sin are prevalent – all issues dealt with at length in the Old Testament, with some particularly problematic conclusions. It is worth remembering that the morality of the Old Testament is difficult to reconcile with today’s liberal world – this was a time when God was vengeful and bloodshed was common, when devout men were tested and sacrifice was demanded (and given). In this setting, Noah may not be narratively accurate, but is most definitely thematically relevant.

Aronofsky does, of course, invite criticism through the subject matter and obvious influences – and any film about religion (particularly Christianity), be it serious (The Passion of the Christ), anti-institutional (Stigmata) or downright silly (Dogma), is going to be divisive. There are also moments that will undoubtedly infuriate the more traditional viewers – Noah telling his family the story of creation, for example, is overlaid with images explicitly showing evolution. Yet even here, in one of the more subtly contentious sequences, the montage stops at the apes, with Adam and Eve remaining divine. In this way, while Noah remains uncompromising in its narrative and unapologetic for its characters’ decisions, it is neither overtly judgemental nor explicitly argumentative.

What is so frequently missing from critiques is whether the film itself is actually any good. Crowe is excellent, bringing a solemnity and pathos to Noah, even in his darkest moments. Jennifer Connolly, reunited with Crowe as Noah’s wife, brings a strength to Naameh, and her involvement is crucial (for both good and bad). Visually, the CGI isn’t always convincing and those expecting a disaster movie will be disappointed – the flood is a relatively minor part of the film. In terms of spectacle, the moments one would expect to be the money shots are frequently downplayed – the flood, the animals (all CGI creations that are “slightly tweaked” versions of real creatures). Yet it is a stunning film – rivers race across the globe in montage sequences, conversations are silhouetted against sunset skies, the Creator’s message told through symbolic nightmare sequences. As contentious and controversial as it may be, Noah at least offers some room for debate and discussion, while being a sharp and accomplished piece of filmmaking, a film that, at the very least, stands apart from the inoffensive, crowd-pleasing, unoriginal Hollywood output so prevalent today.

Release date: 4 April 2014
Rating: 2.5/5

Talking of unoriginal movies, Divergent may be narratively new(ish) but is thematically almost identical to the far superior Hunger Games (itself frequently criticised for being a 12A Battle Royale) – it is adapted from young-adult fiction, it’s set in a dystopian future America (specifically Chicago, here now sitting on the banks of the long-dried Lake Michigan), it features a teenage girl who unwittingly rebels against a society that has taken drastic measures to avoid another war, there’s some political uprising and some bloodless violence, a love interest, etc. The title refers to those few members of society who do not fit into one of the categories by which society is structured – apparently it’s very rare, though whether this would actually be the case remains highly debatable. Tris (Shailene Woodley) is part of the nice, kind, boring category, but discovers she is divergent when she takes her aptitude test. Having always admired the only faction that looks even remotely interesting (Dauntless, the security/rebel/cool kids), she joins up and begins the struggle from bottom to top of the class. If she had picked any other faction, it would have been an altogether different movie, filled with scenes of her sitting in a library or farming, or something. Naturally her new faction is crucial for the Evil Leader’s Evil Plans for Global Domination (Kate Winslet, icy, calculating, and disappointingly unintimidating); naturally her secret divergency (?!) is the key to stopping said plans.

Divergent‘s biggest problem is that it is so obviously riding on the coattails of Hunger Games. It also feels like it’s lacking any clear sense of direction or purpose. The characters are all fairly bland – Theo James does what he can as pretty-boy Four, but the more interesting people are all sidelined. Tris, who introduces the story through typical voice-over, is the weakest link – Woodley’s acting is satisfactory though unmemorable but the problem appears to stem from the writing. It’s really difficult to care about a lead character who, when sent into a dreamscape as part of the Dauntless initiation (it’s all about conquering fear, of course) turns out to be more afraid of a flock of birds than, say, harm coming to her family. It all feels very surface-level and even downright selfish on her part, and the little character development that happens does little to make Tris any more relatable or engaging – there’s so little genuine emotion on show that, by the time the epic showdown occurs (after a really long time), it’s hard to care.

The Double
Release date: 4 April 2014
Rating: 3.5/5

Loosely based on a novel by Fyodor Dostoevsky, directed by Richard Ayoade (Submarine, The IT Crowd) and boasting a producing credit for Harmony Korine (Springbreakers), The Double is a strange, muted film about a loser and the sudden appearance of a double who threatens to take over his life. While I’m reluctant to designate films as “future cult classics,” there is undoubtedly a niche audience that will appreciate The Double, and it invites repeat viewings – although whether there is any kind of adequate solution remains up for debate.

Jesse Eisenberg brings his characteristic awkwardness to Simon, a young man in an ill-fitting suit who appears to be virtually invisible to all those around him – his boss, the pretty copy-girl (Mia Wasikowska) who he admires from afar but cannot work up the courage to ask out on a date, even his mother. Working in a Gilliam-esque, windowless office, the arrival of James (also Eisenberg) throws his world into turmoil; James may be physically identical to Simon, but personality-wise he is all the things Simon is not – successful, charismatic, confident. Having gotten over the initial confusion of no one else acknowledging the startling similarities, Simon is resigned to accepting both James’ intrusion on his life, and the fact that he seems to be living it so much better than him.

Visually, The Double is a dark, foreboding film, filled with shadows and dank spaces that create a quirky, timeless world. It’s well paced and shot with a confidence and flair that signals Ayoade is going from strength to strength. Admittedly it’s fairly slow – the awkwardness of Eisenberg and the director himself is prevalent throughout, but it remains intriguing and engaging. The payoff – the eventual explanation that justifies all the weirdness that has preceded it – arguably offers more questions than answers yet also feels slightly underwhelming, and, personally, is less satisfying than, say Fight Club‘s revelation or Donnie Darko‘s mind-bending outcome. Whether it is actually very clever, or completely nonsensical, would require another viewing – anyone who thinks they’ve got it figured out, please let me know!

Rio 2
Release date: 4 April 2014
Rating: 2/5

Another Jesse Eisenberg vehicle, in this generic kid-friendly animation sequel he plays Blu, a rare, domesticated macaw now living in Rio with his family (Jewel, voiced by Anne Hathaway, and three kids representing various stages of adolescence). Their humans are trekking around in the Amazon, where a huge flock of macaws are secretly living, though their habitat is threatened by some evil loggers. Seeing footage of this flock on the news, Blu, his family and friends head off to the jungle, where hijinks and tomfoolery ensue.

Whereas the first film saw Blu learning to fly, here he is tasked with discovering his inner birdness. Once in the jungle, Jewel is instantly reunited with her father, who thoroughly denounces humans and any bird-human interaction. Yet this being a kids movie with talking animals, all the non-human characters display distinctly human traits – the jungle flock competing in a game of aerial football with the rival flock of parrots, for example. This kind of unintentional irony will most likely not factor in children’s enjoyment, but there is little here to distract the adult viewer from it. Similarly, a tacked on environmental message (loggers=bad) is undermined by the decision to release the film in 3D, thus requiring the costly environmental nightmare that is disposable plastic glasses. The 3D is, by the way, entirely unnecessary – even in the sweeping flight sequences it’s barely noticeable.

Visually, Rio 2 is adequate, but in terms of both narrative and cinematic achievement it is weaker than even Pixar’s more disappointing recent movies. The jungles are pretty and Gabi the poisonous, lovestruck frog is entertaining, but there is nothing particularly impressive, unexpected, or memorable about it, while the screenplay attempts to include an array of plots, none of which offer any depth or development – there’s a rival macaw vying for Jewel’s affections, but it goes nowhere; there’s the loggers and the return of Rio‘s bad-bird Nigel; a number of family conflicts are introduced (Jewel and her father, her father and Blu, Blu and his children) but they’re all quickly resolved in child-friendly outcomes. Although there are some musical numbers, there’s no consistency, and the songs are instantly forgettable. Bland and generic, it’s definitely one for the kids.