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.

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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.