Film #116: The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

film 116 the nightmare before christmas
Rating: 5/5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Film #107: Dig! (2004)

film 106 dig

Rating: 4.5/5

“I’m not for sale. I’m fucking Love, do you understand what I’m saying? Like, the Beatles were for sale. I give it away.”

Filmed over seven years, Ondi Timoner’s documentary is a fascinating, gripping insight into the (mostly friendly) rivalry between two bands, The Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre. It’s a story of egos and artistry, a cautionary tale about truly living the rockstar lifestyle and the hazards of becoming part of the corporate music industry – Timoner’s access to both bands seems to be entirely unrestricted, and nothing seems to be off limits. This must have dominated Timoner’s life for years – they seem to be completely comfortable with both her and the camera recording every move, and it seems like there’s nothing she hasn’t caught on film.

While it probably helps to be somewhat familiar with the bands, it’s not essential – most people will have heard the Dandy’s “Bohemian Like You,” but don’t be surprised if you’ve never heard of BJM – the whole point is that no one has. Narrated by Dandy frontman, Courtney Taylor (also the leading creative force in the band – he writes all the songs), early on he talks about his admiration for BJM’s frontman (and, similarly, the creative force), Anton Newcombe. In contrast to the fairly straight-laced Dandys, Anton is a self-destructive artist, uncooperative, unable to “play the game,” as it were, yet convinced that he doesn’t need to in order to start the necessary, inevitable “revolution.” While the Dandys smoke weed and drink and partake in that lifestyle, they like to remind us that they take their jobs very seriously, that they want to be successful, that they don’t mess around – they admit they are the “most well-adjusted band in America.” Imagine them as the straight-A students: Anton and the BJM are the ones smoking dope in the school bathrooms when they should be in class.

It often seems as though there’s a serious case of hero worship at play here. Taylor is clearly in awe of Anton’s talents – jealous, even (just as Anton seems unwilling to acknowledge his envy at the Dandy’s subsequent success). And more than that, it seems as though Taylor is also caught up in everything that Anton represents: that rebellious lifestyle, the anarchy stopping Anton from ever really achieving any kind of (dare I say it?) mainstream popularity. Fairly early on, Taylor joins the BJM on tour and, as expected, the gigs are a shambles. Anton seems incapable of showing any restraint: the shows are notorious, with fans coming just to see what chaos will unfold. Taylor, who would clearly never allow any such incidents at his own gig (on-stage punch-ups, impromptu resignations, riots…), evidently loves being a part of such bedlam – it’s not his tour, he keeps saying. He comes across as the sheltered kid hero-worshipping the bad boy, relishing that brief respite from normalcy before returning back to his neat house and his nine-to-five, safe in the knowledge that none of what transpired will really affect his life.

While the Dandys gradually begin to enjoy success – they get signed to a major label, David LaChapelle directs one of their music videos – it is telling that all the talking head interviewees (mostly comprised of A&R people from various labels) focus entirely on the BJM. They are the unsigned talent, the band they all loved listening to yet knew they could never work with. Anton is a hazard – too self-destructive, too arrogant, too delusional. He waxes lyrical about how many people he has influenced, about the mark he’s made on the world, about how he’s bigger than god. It’s almost pathetic, except that it seems so genuine. He really believes what he says, and he lives what he says. The rest of the BJM are merely his backing group, and in the twenty-odd years since the band first began, Anton remains the only consistent member – everyone else is expendable.

Although it would be easy for this to be a rather depressing tale – the tragic, doomed artist and his self-sabotage – it never is. Anton himself is never shown wallowing in self-pity. Instead, he’s a free spirit – a child of the sixties, out of time and place, caring only about making music. The other members of the BJM also seem to have been lifted straight from a more psychedelic time – Matt Hollywood looks just like John Lennon with his long hair and round glasses; Joel Gion seems to be permanently stoned, wearing a goofy grin and an impressive collection of gigantic, bug-eye sunglasses. In contrast to the Dandys, who often come across as quite bratty, the BJM match talent with madness, destruction with rebellion.

Timoner brings this energy to the documentary too; it’s raw, irreverent, a no-holds-barred punk tale. It’s got a grimy, lo-fi aesthetic, with poor-quality, hand-held, sometimes black and white footage edited together in such a way that it perfectly captures the psychedelic, retro tone of the bands’ music. It’s an engrossing, ironic, funny, tragic story – at times it’s like watching a car crash: you can’t look away, no matter how you want to. Like the A&R industry reps, and like Courtney, it’s easy to see that Anton is talented, that on the basis of his music alone the BJM should be successful and influential – all the things he says he wants (or says he is already) – but, like the reps, it’s equally easy to see what a disaster he would be. As someone points out in the film, Anton wants to live the rock’n’roll lifestyle, to be as big as the Beatles or Oasis (there are frequent references to the famous rivalries, Beatles/Stones, Oasis/Blur), but has failed to take into account that these bands were big before they started taking drugs and acting out. Anton has it the wrong way around, and even the labels that accept the challenge soon regret it. Yet, even ten years after this documentary was made, the BJM are still touring, still making music. Isn’t that the point?

Film #106: The Rutles: All You Need is Cash (1978)

film 106 the rutles

Rating: 3.5/5

“Listen, looking at it very simply musicology and ethnically, the Rutles were essentially empirical malengistes of a rhythmically radical yet verbally passé and temporally transcended lyrically content welded with historically innovative melodical material transposed and transmogrified by the angst of the Rutland ethic experience which elevated them from essentially alpha exponents of in essence merely beta potential harmonic material into the prime cultural exponents of Aeolian cadencic comic stanza form.”

Conceived and written by Eric Idle, it’s no surprise that The Rutles has a distinctly Pythonesque vibe but, more impressively, it truly captures the heady delirium and quintessentially sixties qualities of the band they’re parodying, The Beatles. To be honest, at many points in this mockumentary – a precursor to This is Spinal Tap if there ever was one – could barely be considered a parody or satire, it seems to be so close to the truth. Perhaps that’s the beauty of it – no matter how you try and send them up, The Beatles still seem to have done it all first.

This is, really, a film for Beatles’ fans, with the rise and fall of the Rutles mirroring the rise and, well, not quite fall, but break-up, of The Beatles. The Pre-Fab Four, Idle’s straight-laced narrator informs us, grew up in Liverpool, played in the Cavern Club before travelling over to Germany and, soon after, conquering the world (musically, of course). There was a fifth Rutle at one point, but he climbed into a suitcase with a girl and disappeared. Their success was meteoric: soon girls all over the globe were smitten, and after a string of hits, the boys – Barry (John Halsey), Stig (Ricky Fataar, who, as the quiet one, never gets a single line of dialogue), Nasty (Neil Innes, who also wrote the music), and Dirk (also Idle – in typical Python fashion, he plays multiple characters) – decide to make movies. Throughout this mockumentary we see Idle and chums recreating the filmography of The Beatles, from the music-video-inspired British classic A Hard Day’s Night to the group’s more experimental fare, A Magical Mystery Tour. All You Need is Cash captures the sentiments of these movies perfectly – from the giddy innocence/ youth rebellion of a day in the life of the world’s biggest band (reimagined as A Hard Day’s Rut) to the drug-influenced surrealism of the band’s stranger filmmaking attempts (The Tragical History Tour, complete with “I Am the Walrus” parody, “Piggy in the Middle”).

Non-Beatles fans will no doubt still be able to appreciate the movie, though much of the nuance and humour depends on a fairly decent knowledge of the Fab Four. It seems like everything is covered: the relationships, the crises, the inspirations, the band’s developing sound. The Rutles make mistakes, like claiming they were bigger than God (just as Lennon was accused of doing). They fall in with a dodgy guru (here Arthur Sultan, the Surrey Mystic), get tired of all the girls screaming at their concerts, and openly experiment with tea. The girlfriends get a brief mention – Yoko, inevitably, fares the worst. Here her Rutles persona is the SS-uniform-clad daughter of the man who “invented World War II,” an artist who dreams of throwing musicians off buildings as part of her latest installation.

The Pre-Fab Four actors play their parts perfectly – it’s always clear who everyone is supposed to be, and they capture the carefree, impromptu nature of The Beatles. Their interview segments are brilliant, perfectly epitomising the bizarre, deadpan responses of the group to inane questions (“what’s your ambition?” asks one reporter. “I’d like to be a hairdresser. Or two. I’d like to be two hairdressers,” Barry responds). They’re supported by a superb cast of recognisable British actors and musicians, with some wonderful – if brief – cameos by SNL regulars. Dan Akyroyd pops up, so too does John Belushi and Bill Murray, while Mick Jagger waxes lyrical about how The Rutles influenced him. Paul Simon and Ron Wood also appear, as does Michael Palin and, as perfect evidence of endorsement, George Harrison has bit-part as a news reporter (Harrison was a big fan of Monty Python, and “pawned” his house in London to fund the troupe’s most famous, and controversial, and hilarious feature film, The Life of Brian).

The music is also pitch-perfect. Innes has cleverly distorted recognisable Beatles’ tunes, changing the lyrics and altering the sound just enough so that they remain obviously inspired by specific songs, but the recognition is often rather elusive. The earlier songs in particular are spot-on and often particularly convincing: “All My Loving” becomes “Hold My Hand”, “If I Fell” transforms into “Number One”, “All You Need is Love” turns into “Love Life”. Each song is performed with upbeat enthusiasm from the group, first in obvious studio settings, then moving beyond the constraints of stiff-upper-lipped BBC standards to the more hippy, freewheeling organic style of the Beatles’ later sound. By the end of the film, it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish what is Beatles and what is Rutles, the two groups almost becoming interchangeable, such is the accuracy of Idle’s observations. It’s no wonder that the group – The Rutles, that is – have since released several albums and have been touring as recently as May this year. Ironically, the parody has survived longer than the original, although in terms of musical achievement, pop culture iconography, and influence, it’s the Fab Four, not their Pre-Fab counterparts, who reign supreme.

Films #99-100: Crossroads (2002) & Burlesque (2010)

film 99 crossroads

Ratings: Crossroads, 2/5; Burlesque, 3/5

“All we have is now, and right now we have each other.”
“I will not be upstaged by some slut with mutant lungs!”

One hundred films watched, finally – and what better way to hit the milestone than to celebrate with a 90s-pop-star-to-movie-star-showdown? Yes, it’s Britney Spears in Crossroads versus Christina Aguilera in Burlesque, with a dash of Cher thrown in for good measure. It goes without saying these are cheesy movies but, despite the suggestively low-to-average ratings, they’re both great fun (if you’re that way inclined, I suppose).

First up: Crossroads. Britney is Lucy, virginal do-gooder and all-round nice girl with some abandonment issues thanks to her mother leaving her as a young child. She and her two childhood friends had buried a time capsule many years ago, but as the years passed, these three best friends have grown up, and grown apart. Lucy’s a smokin’ hot dork, Kit (Zoe Saldana, long before carving a name for herself in some of the biggest movie franchises around) is a rich bitch with mummy issues, and Mimi (Taryn Manning) is pregnant by some loser. But it’s finally their high school prom, and the three temporarily put aside their differences to open the box and remember their hopes and dreams. This, naturally, leads to the three embarking on a road trip to LA in a classic convertible with a handsome older man, Ben (Anson Mount) who may or may not have just been released from jail for murder. It’s a coming of age roadtrip movie – they’re all at the crossroads of their lives, you see?

The film is shoddy, to say the least. The plot makes little or no sense, and the characters react in ways that never consider the big picture: the girls find out that Ben may have killed someone while on their road trip, yet continue to antagonise him at every given moment. They may be freaking out in the motel bathroom that they’re going to be murdered and buried in the desert, but two minutes later they’ve apparently forgotten the entire thing. Mimi is planning on going to LA to compete in a recording contest, but develops stage fright the first second she has to sing in public, and almost instantaneously hands over the mike to Lucy and forgets her dream. Kit oddly switches between stereotypical black girl (saying things like “y’all” and getting shouty when drunk) and prim white rich girl. Lucy is a wallflower, but the second she puts on a denim mini-skirt she suddenly becomes a raunchy, pole-dancing showgirl. Ben has no personality whatsoever, but is generally pleasing to the eye so gets away with throwing tantrums in the desert. He also listens exclusively to heavy metal, but writes the music to one of the soppiest pop songs ever (Britney’s mediocre soulful hit, I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman). This does at least, lead to one of the most cringeworthy moments in the whole movie, when he plays the song to Lucy on a white grand piano, as she does that classic 90s, breathy “na na na na” singalong. Yes, there are plenty of moments to groan through and laugh at.

There’s very little actually good about Crossroads – the acting is perfunctory at best (as the biggest name after Britney, Dan Aykroyd sleepwalks through his role as her dad), the narrative incoherent, and one important scene is marred by the constant disappearance and reappearance of a toothbrush in Mimi’s hair. The biggest problem, however, is that the girls are supposed to be eighteen – and therefore adults – yet look and act like they’re about thirteen. Meanwhile Ben is, admittedly, older, but looks a good ten years older than these teens, making the whole thing more than a little uncomfortable. It’s also a surprisingly dark movie – although the overarching themes are ultra-cheesy (friendship, family, finding yourself, growing up) the individual characters’ stories include parental abandonment, cheating, potential murder and rape, with pregnant Mimi in particular suffering a number of harrowing blows. It adds another layer of awkwardness to the movie, which seems to be confused as to who its target audience is: the tweens who love Britney as a pop star, or the young adults who are her actual age. Consequently, it fails to really appeal to either – but as a nostalgic throwback to a time when double denim was the height of fashion, it’s camp, stupid, unintentionally hilarious, and very entertaining. I’m Not a Girl is still a terrible song though.

film 100 burlesque

Next up: Britney’s rival, Christina, in Burlesque. Capitalising on the sudden resurgence of burlesque as a female-empowered, ultra-glamorous performance art, the film sees Ali (Aguilera) packing her things and leaving her small town for the lights and sights of LA – whereas Lucy’s journey ends at the City of Angels, Ali’s begins there. We learn nothing whatsoever about Ali’s homelife – she doesn’t appear to have any family or friends, for example. In LA she tries to make it as a singer-dancer, but isn’t having any luck until she happens upon the outwardly understated Burlesque club (that’s what it’s called, apparently) and instantly falls in love with the razzmatazz and spectacle of the whole thing. Luckily she walks in just as the club’s owner Tess (Cher) is singing a conveniently informative song all about burlesque and what it can offer you. Determined to make it, Ali becomes a waitress at the club, learns all the routines, befriends hunky (possibly gay) bartender/songwriter Jack (Cam Gigandet wearing some guyliner) and waits for her chance. Luckily the club’s lead dancer is an unreliable, spiteful alcoholic, and it’s not long before Ali is saving the day by singing live rather than lipsynching to songs.

Burlesque has one massive, glaring problem: it has almost no burlesque in it. The club is not a bump-and-grind venue, but a cabaret show – the girls don’t take their clothes off, because this is a 12A-rated movie; instead they perform vaguely risqué dance routines to famous songs, while wearing glamorous, moderately revealing showgirl outfits. It’s burlesque for the High School Musical generation – clean cut and harmless, inoffensive but slightly titillating. In many ways, Burlesque is most reminiscent of Coyote Ugly – it follows a very similar storyline and also makes the seedy reality of “making it in Hollywood” seem glamorous and empowering.

Where Burlesque works, however, is in its campness. It seems to embrace this wholeheartedly; it’s like Chicago, but cheesier, with Stanley Tucci stealing the show as Tess’s gay best friend/ right hand man, and Alan Cumming channelling Joel Grey’s compere character in Cabaret. Plus, it’s got gay icon Cher at the helm. She swans around in super high heels and high-cut leotards, sings heartfelt songs without moving a muscle in her face, and looks strangely younger than people twenty years her junior – it’s truly bizarre to think that she was sixty-four in real life! The shame of the movie is that she never gets to sing with Christina. Like her or not, Aguilera’s voice is incredible, and the second she opens her mouth to sing the star quality shines through – she puts Britney to shame, by the way. Meanwhile the songs are frequent – this is far more a musical than Crossroads – and energetic, with the whole movie taking on a far more light-hearted, upbeat tone than Britney’s soul-searching tour de force.

That’s not to say Burlesque is necessarily a good film – there’s plenty that doesn’t make sense. Like Crossroads the screenwriters seem to have a really strange grasp of time: events seem to take weeks, yet actually happen in an evening; others seem to take minutes but span months. Also like Crossroads, it involves the man-candy writing a song for the pop princesses, and like Crossroads the song sounds absolutely nothing like any of the other songs that man either listens to or plays. And, whereas Britney’s Lucy is saccharine sweet, Christina’s Ali is frequently a bit of a brat. But Burlesque works because it has more established actors who are clearly enjoying their roles and embracing the cheesiness, and generally the film feels less overwrought than Crossroads – it’s designed to be fun, and fun it is.

So, in the epic battle between these two former superstars, who comes out on top? Christina’s voice is better, Burlesque‘s narrative is marginally more coherent, the acting better simply because of its self-awareness, and the spectacle is definitely better. It also has one of the most outrageous seduction scenes. Yet Crossroads also has a ridiculous seduction scene, and it’s got Britney’s trademark cute-but-sexy thing working for it, and it’s so stupid and so incoherent, and the songs are pretty dreadful, and the characters equally rubbish… To be honest, it’s a tough call, but together they make for a truly epic double bill.

Cinema Lottery #11

MUPPETS MOST WANTED

Muppets Most Wanted
Release date: 28 March 2014
Rating: 2.5/5

Muppets Most Wanted follows directly from 2011’s charming, funny kind-of reboot, The Muppets (2011) and, ironically, is all too aware of the potential pitfalls of sequels – its opening musical number, a hilarious and astute showtune, directly warns us that they’re never as good as the first. This film, sadly, embodies this notion. Replacing the genuine enthusiasm of Jason Segel and real-life cartoon Amy Adams with Ricky Gervais is the first problem; he’s a divisive personality and, for his critics (myself included), his sleazeball-loser routine is expected and unappealing. He gets far too much screen time as the Muppets’ tour manager-cum-jewel thief, taking them on a disappointing “world tour” that comprises of four European countries while his boss Constantine, the most dangerous frog in the world, masquarades as Kermit. Cue a host of famous cameos, from Lady Gaga to Danny Trejo, who are undoubtedly fun to spot but frequently seem rather pointless.

The musical numbers are the film’s highlight; none really match the opening sequence, but are nevertheless catchy and entertainingly silly. There is, however, a general lack of fun and charm: it’s pleasant enough, but rarely laugh-out-loud funny – Constantine’s attempts to emulate Kermit are the high points, and admittedly there is a rather perverse enjoyment in seeing Gervais sing an entire song about being Number Two – while the story is bland and the supposedly exotic locations underwhelming. Ty Burrell, as the Interpol agent tasked with catching the jewel thieves, is a welcome addition, but Muppets Most Wanted generally feels rushed; relying too heavily, perhaps, on its predecessor’s success rather than taking the time to make more of an effort. Plus, the addition of some Cabbage Patch-esque baby puppet criminals is just plain creepy.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Release date: 26 March 2014
Rating: 3/5

The latest addition to the Marvel film canon, Captain America‘s sequel, much like Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World, follows the individual Avengers as they deal with the world post-New York. It is, therefore, becoming increasingly important that viewers watch not one but all films, and it is also becoming increasingly obvious that each sequel is basically laying the groundwork for the eagerly anticipated Avengers sequel (due next year). This multi-layered world of intertwining stories is no doubt clever, but each is now suffering from a distinct case of deja vu – presuming that most people will go see this having seen most, if not all, of the films that have gone before, they are becoming fairly predictable. That’s not to say they’re not still entertaining films, but the element of surprise is definitely fading.

Captain America (Chris Evans) is by far the blandest of the Avengers; like Superman he’s a bit too clean cut, a bit too nice to be particularly interesting. Adding the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Falcon (Anthony Mackie) into the mix is smart; Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) also gets a more prominent role, while Robert Redford adds some gravitas as Alexander Pierce, a SHIELD bigwig. The enemy in this instalment is not just the Winter Soldier, a mysterious assassin with a metal arm, but a threat to freedom itself, in the form of some new “precautionary” weapons (think Minority Report on a mass scale). Part war film, part spy drama, it’s an entertaining though dry film, directly referencing the events in Captain America in particular. There are some good fight scenes, but the final set piece is far too reminiscent of parts of Avengers, and the CGI-heavy sequences of mass destruction no longer excite as they once did. As its own film, The Winter Soldier is decent, but even it seems to acknowledge that really its main appeal is to follow the characters on route to the events that will occur in the next Avengers; in this case, it is the destination that is more important than the journey.

About Last Night

Release date: 21 March 2014
Rating: 2/5

A remake of a 1980s film, which was itself an adaptation of a 1974 play (with the more lurid title Sexual Perversity in Chicago), About Last Night stars Kevin Hart (30 Rock), Regina Hall (Scary Movie), Michael Ealy and Joy Bryant as four twenty-somethings going through a series of relationship and friend dramas. The two women are friends, the two men are friends, and they pair off into two uninspiring couples: Hart and Hall are irritating; Ealy and Bryant are nice but boring. Over the course of a year they break up and get back together, enjoy relationship-free sex and cohabiting, get a puppy, and bicker a lot. Yet the film is distinctly lacking in sexual perversion – were it not for the swearing, the movie would barely scrape a 12A rating.

Writing this two days after viewing, it’s already a struggle to remember anything particularly interesting (or at all) about the film. Hart and Hall both embody a kind of comedy that will either appeal or irritate, while the other two are inoffensive but forgettable. With a far stronger emphasis on drama than comedy, it’s a strangely understated film that nonetheless cannot hide the fact that the relationships are all generally stupid; meaningless fights over minute disagreements, the characters failure to communicate is trite and dull, and plot points that fail to add any sympathies to the leads (Ealy quitting/getting fired from his job is the result of something that is completely his doing, despite the film presenting it as a “down with the corporate man” kind of triumph). Of course, the whole thing is neatly tied up with a nice Happily Ever After ribbon, in which love conquers all, leaving the characters to get on with their lives and us to get on with ours, happy that neither has had even the slightest affect on each other whatsoever.

Labor Day
Release date: 21 March 2014
Rating: 3/5

Based on a novel by Joyce Maynard, written for the screen and directed by Jason Reitman (Juno, Thank You For Smoking), the majority of Labor Day takes place over a long weekend, when escaped convict Frank (Josh Brolin) imposes himself on reclusive Adele (Kate Winslet) and her taciturn, solemn son Henry (Gattlin Griffith) only to become an important presence in their incomplete family unit. It’s an altogether more grown-up film for Reitman, with an emphasis on family values and melodrama – there’s none of the black comedy or quirky-hip language prevalent in Juno or Young Adult, for example. Yet despite the strong cast and appealingly nostalgic small-town America aesthetic, it is let down by its narrative, which requires a great deal of suspension of disbelief; never mind how easily Adele allows this criminal stranger into her home, it’s just far too easy for him to become the love interest/father figure. Within a day he’s fixed the car and the boiler and waxed their floors, the following day he’s teaching disabled children to play baseball – and despite living among other houses and there being countless posters asking for his whereabouts, no one seems to notice the strange new man cleaning gutters in a depressed hermit’s home.

It’s such a shame that the film is so let down by its source material (or by Reitman’s adaptation – having not read the book perhaps I shouldn’t so quickly pass the blame to Maynard). Winslet is, as usual, utterly believable, and there’s a gentle, affective chemistry between her and Brolin. While the focus is predominantly on the unconventional family unit, the supporting characters, including Clark Gregg’s ex-husband and James Van Der Beek’s concerned cop, are a welcome addition. The film is shot in welcoming, warm tones, with hints as to past traumas carefully combined in delicate montages. The emphasis on Americana is evident; an important scene involves the detailed creation of a peach pie – hardly subtle, but undoubtedly evocative. Yet it all strains disbelief somewhat; as much as it’s easy to believe the emotions on show, the narrative is too distracting in its overwrought melodrama. After a slow, meandering film that gradually reveals difficult home truths, Labor Day is further problematised by a rushed conclusion, which spans some fifteen years in a few minutes while adult Henry narrates, providing the family with a bittersweet ending but, with the melodrama conflicting with the understated performances and style, it ends up being, sadly, a bit unconvincing.

Film #73: Moulin Rouge! (2001)

film 73 moulin rouge

Rating: 2.5/5

“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love, and be loved in return.”

Baz Luhrmann’s third feature, following the superb Romeo + Juliet (1996), continues – and develops – the writer/director’s unique vision, transforming Paris of the 1900s into a hyperrealistic whirlwind of hedonism, colour and gaudy glitz. At the centre of the film is a story about love, but it’s a rather trite tale in comparison to the beautiful, timeless tragedy of Shakespeare – the similarly doomed romance between an impoverished bohemian writer (Ewan McGregor) and the glamorous “sparkling diamond” of the Moulin Rouge (Nicole Kidman) benefits from the natural chemistry between the two stars but lacks any sense of originality. Instead, Luhrmann distracts us from the banality of the story with a constant barrage of spectacle – it feels like everything needs to be punctuated with exclamation marks. The costumes! The dancing! The theatre! The overacting! Yet although the frenetic pace and manic editing style does capture the overwhelming sense of dizzying debauchery, there is no time to pause and actually focus on what is being shown. Luhrmann further infuriates by constantly overusing extreme close-ups – the actors’ faces dominate the frame, and there’s barely a hint as to the undoubtedly impressive sets surrounding them.

It’s a shame, because the few brief glimpses of Luhrmann’s Paris are beautiful – a Melies-inspired moon watches over the city, with the Eiffel Tower and the city’s sole hill, Mont Martre, looming on the skyline. At the foot of the hill is the Moulin Rouge, arguably the most famous cabaret club in Europe, if not the world. Its parties are legendary, its girls equally so, and Luhrmann revels in the spectacle of the place. This is the ultimate bohemian dream – a world in which “freedom, truth, beauty and love” rule supreme. Writer Christian’s life is turned upside down following his encounter with Toulouse Lautrec (John Leguizamo; perhaps it’s just me who always feels somewhat uncomfortable at the frequency of “regular-sized” actors portraying dwarves, though he does a good job despite the strange fake legs) and the artist’s merry band of fellow bohemians. Together, they conspire to ensure their play, the ultimate bohemian artwork championing the aforementioned ideals, is put on at the Moulin Rouge. In a classic case of mistaken identity, Satine (Kidman) believes Christian is the Duke, a potential patron of the new theatre, and soon the star-crossed lovers are hiding their trysts while the villainous, nameless Duke (Richard Roxburgh in an impressively sleazy role, complete with spindly moustache) attempts to remain oblivious to the treachery under his nose.

It’s a messy plot, symptomatic of a generally messy film, though it does eventually calm down somewhat. The initial rendezvous, held in the magnificent giant elephant in which Satine lives, is a particularly cluttered, confused sequence; Kidman shrieks and pouts while characters pop up with comic sound effects, McGregor turns on the charm and lights the screen up with his irresistible smile, but it’s all too manic. All the pizazz, while undoubtedly working to create a unique, instantly recognisable aesthetic, is far too distracting. The characters are entirely two dimensional, with no sense of depth or development, and the love story – the most important thing, as we are constantly reminded – fails to make any significant emotional impact as a result. It doesn’t help that its tragedy is reduced to a blood stain on the handkerchief of Satine, whose delicate coughs and sparkly beads of sweat on her brow are simply tiresome; the ending is inevitable, and particularly uninspired. Furthermore, the romance starts to grate – the two are so caught up in love that they barely even try to conceal this apparently “secret” love affair, despite knowing the potential damage they could cause, not just to themselves, but to everyone around them. Their selfishness and immaturity may be a sign of passion, but for anyone even remotely cynical, it’s just irritating and, quite frankly, rude.

There is a lot to praise, however, and it’s frustrating to see such talent and vision destroyed by excessive overuse and a lack of self-control on the part of the director. The music, continuing the distinctive style of Luhrmann, consists of a vast array of famous songs, reappropriated and combined in medleys. Some work better than others – the rendition of Roxanne by the Unconscious Argentinian (Jacek Koman) is wonderful, the first dance number of the Moulin Rouge less so. When the camera pauses long enough for us to actually see the choreography of the dance routines, they’re wonderfully evocative and, at times, quite powerful. The central performances of McGregor and Kidman fizz with energy, and McGregor has a beautiful tone to his voice – in fact, it is his star quality that really comes to the fore. Neither, however, quite match Jim Broadbent, who utterly steals the show as the Moulin Rouge’s owner Zidler – he is also the only character with even a hint of depth, and he is fantastic. Yet the film’s biggest flaw is Luhrmann himself, whose directorial style is manic; he shows a distinct lack of self-restraint, and the emotion of the story is compromised as a result (it’s perhaps for this reason that the Academy chose not to consider him for best director despite the film’s other nominations). Despite its apparent emphasis on the bohemian ideals, what really emerges is that there’s very little substance beneath the glitzy, crazed style.

Film #47: The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed Up Zombies!!? (1964)

film 47 incredibly strange creatures

Rating: 1.5/5

“You dirty, filthy pig! So, I belong with the freaks, huh? I’ll fix you so even the freaks won’t look at you.”

Sadly, because of other commitments, Movie Lottery has taken something of a back seat in recent weeks, and this will be my last post until the middle of September. However, then I will be back with a vengeance! So it is with more than a little regret that the last movie picked before this mini-sabbatical is this one: a film that has gained more notoriety because of its title than because of anything it it. The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed Up Zombies!!? (the unconventional punctuation is officially part of the title) is a bad movie, but an altogether different kind of bad movie to those churned out by the likes of Ed Wood. Whereas his films are deliriously entertaining, this one is boring – if Ed Wood’s films are “so bad they’re good” (or, more accurately, “so bad it’s enjoyable”) then this is “so bad it’s a chore”. Yet for those willing to sit through this 82 minute endurance test, there are a few moments that make it almost worthwhile. Almost, but not quite.

Ray Dennis Steckler’s second feature does undoubtedly have one of the greatest movie titles of all time – although Asylum’s constant SyFy output now threaten to steal his thunder (or should that be Sharkthunder?). Incredibly Strange Creatures even lent its name to an influential early book on cult movies, Incredibly Strange Films, and a substantial interview with the director is included. Unfortunately, there aren’t even enough anecdotes to make this film more interesting, although I did learn that the roller coaster shown (in first person view at some points) is the Cyclone Racer in Long Beach, California – at one time the fastest dual roller coaster in the world.

Steckler is not only the film’s director; using a snazzy alias (Cash Flagg!) he is also the lead – a charisma-free layabout called Jerry. Jerry is, apparently, supposed to be a young, rebellious wild child, as indicated by his refusal to get a job and claims that the world is his university. Yet he comes across less as a free spirit, and more as an arrogant bum. Poor Steckler (or should that be Flagg?) is hardly leading man material – he doesn’t look, act, or even dress the part. Wearing a ratty navy hoodie throughout the film, this does little to add any sense of sex appeal, although it seems to serve the script somewhat by vaguely disguising him when, under hypnosis, he goes on a killing spree in full view of a room of people. It also, however, makes his tiny face look ridiculous as he’s doing it.

So, the plot. It’s probably best to not concern yourselves too much with this, as it makes no sense whatsoever. There’s a fortune teller who likes to throw acid in the faces of men who reject her advances, her sister the showgirl, a hunchback minion called Ortega, and a bevy of young, scantily clad girls. Jerry frequents the carnival with his girlfriend and friend Harold (the equally wonderfully named Atlas King, a handsome Greek actor whose accent is not helped by the film’s muffled sound quality), and they get their fortunes read. Jerry becomes fixated with the fortune teller’s sister, and then is hypnotised and turned into a murderous fiend who kills one of the other showgirls for no apparent reason. The “zombies” are not the undead risen from the grave – they are the aforementioned now-deformed suitors, who seem to have gone feral while locked in their cage (what the fortune teller was keeping them for is unclear). Their subsequent rampage following their escape lasts all of two minutes, which, coincidentally, is at least three minutes shorter than the final scene, in which Jerry is chased across the beach. It’s stupid, mundane, and very basic, filled with continuity problems and strange subplots; the dialogue is sparse (and difficult to hear); the characters fail to engage on any level.

It is, however, just one of a number of films claiming to be the first “horror musical” – it came out a mere month before one of the others, Horror of Party Beach, which, incidentally, is far more entertaining than this film. Party Beach at least attempts to integrate its music into the film; Incredibly Strange Creatures frequently takes on a revue form, with a number of musical interludes performed by ungainly, bored looking dancers and watched by an equally bored looking audience. Until the “zombie” attack, none of these serve any real purpose other than to eat into the screen time.

So, at the beginning of this review, I said there were a few moments worth watching. The main one is a fevered dream sequence following Jerry’s hypnosis. Included to indicate the poor man’s emotional turmoil, it utterly fails in this regard, but it is the strangest sequence in the movie; one that verges on the surreal, with its painted dancers and twirling graphics. In fact, the film frequently becomes almost hallucinatory in style – there are constant cuts to stock scenes of the fairground at night, with the camera dizzyingly following the tilt-a-whirls and carousels. Filmed in colour on a micro-budget (its camera operator, Vilmos Zsigmond, went on to win an Oscar for his work on Close Encounters of the Third Kind, while the assistant cameraman, Laslo Kovacs, worked on Easy Rider and numerous big Hollywood productions), the result is a head-spinning, strangely mesmerising movie – perfect for a music video perhaps, but not a narrative film. As soon as the characters reappear, the spell is broken, and once again the tedium sets in.

The final scenes offers no chance of a happy ending. Unlike the similarly low-budget movies of the 1950s, which usually culminate in the handsome man and plucky young woman embracing, here our patience is rewarded with a slowly retreating aerial shot of a group of people mournfully surrounding the body of a man that no one cared about in the first place. It’s a depressing end to an unsatisfying movie that could never even come close to living up to its absurd publicity claims (“Not For Sissies! Don’t Come if you’re Chicken! A Horrifying Movie of Weird Beauties and Shocking Monsters! 1001 Weirdest Scenes Ever!! Most Shocking Thriller of the Century!”). Is it fun to watch? No, but, as much as it pains me to admit it, even as I write I find myself thinking back with an unexpected degree of fondness. How strange. How… incredibly strange, in fact.