Films #120-122: Fast and Furious 4-6

film 120 121 122 fast and furious

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

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

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

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

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

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Film #112: Southland Tales (2006)

film 112 southland tales

Rating: 5/5

“This is the way the world ends. This is the way the world ends. Not with a whimper, but with a bang.”

Having attained cult status and acclaim for his feature debut Donnie Darko, writer-director Richard Kelly’s second film was eagerly anticipated by many – until it premièred at Cannes in 2006. Having already been significantly delayed, it received arguably the worst reception at the festival: audiences were not even interested in booing it, preferring to simply walk out. The film ended up with the lowest ratings of the festival, a meagre 1.1/5, and Kelly returned to the editing suite in a last-ditch attempt to salvage what was widely acknowledged as an incoherent mess. The work is visible in the film, which was eventually released at the end of 2007 – extensive voice-over, a mass of information at the beginning overloading the brain with facts and throwing the audience straight into the action, strange animated shots taken from the prequel comic books (another attempt to provide some coherence to the plot), new special effects. Characters who once possibly featured prominently now pop up for brief scenes – an unrecognisable Kevin Smith, for example, or a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo from Janeane Garofalo in one of the final shots. It still barely makes sense – I’ve seen it dozens of times by now, and every time I realise something new, notice something crucial that I’d completely missed, lose track of the plot. It emerges like a fevered dream, hypnotic and surreal, a bizarre mixture of pop culture and theology, a supremely convoluted plot with a vast cast of eccentrics and weirdos spouting nonsense. It’s a marmite movie: you’ll either love it or hate it. I love it.

To recount the plot would, quite simply, take too long, but it goes something like this. It’s 2008, the future, and the government has become a paranoid Big Brother. Travel is restricted between states, but an actor with amnesia called Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson, billed as his real name for the first time) has somehow ended up writing a screenplay with a psychic porn star (Sarah Michelle Gellar) that foretells the end of the world. Meanwhile Sean Patrick Scott is identical twin brothers, one impersonating the other, while the Neo-Marxists, a rebel organisation, collect fingers in an attempt to bring down Usident, the government surveillance operation led by Nana Mae Frost (Miranda Richardson), wife of senator Bobby Frost (Holmes Osbourne). Pilot Abilene (Justin Timberlake), a war veteran turned drug addict also monitors from his platform above Venice Beach, looking over the newly built Fluid Karma factory, a new technology developed by Baron Von Westphalen (Wallace Shawn) that could spell the end of global fuel shortages. And so it goes on. In this confused, and confusing, tangled web of a narrative, characters come and go, scandals are revealed, and the apocalypse begins. No pressure or anything.

It could either be a criticism or praise (I mean it as the latter) that Kelly’s screenplay throws the audience right into the middle of the story. The film is divided into three chapters, which are parts four, five, and six, each one named after a song (Temptation Waits by Garbage, Memory Gospel by Moby, and Wave of Mutilation by The Pixies). The first three chapters have subsequently been released in comic book form, but they, like the Donnie Darko director’s cut, are a complete disappointment, revealing that, in reality, Kelly never intended his story to be incoherent. The comics are far more linear – still bizarre – and much of the film’s impact is lost as a result. A brilliantly bonkers scene in the middle of the film, when a large number of the cast meet and all accuse each other of betrayal, is made redundant if one has read the comics, for example. The beauty of the film is that, like Donnie Darko, the audience is expected to fill in the blanks, to reach its own conclusions – the comic books take away that authority, reducing the film’s power to something far more mundane.

There’s so much to praise about Southland Tales. The cast, largely comprised of character actors and those who had previously been typecast in specific roles, all ham up their roles to perfection. Gellar is great as Krysta Now, the porn star with lofty intentions. Timberlake excels, and features in one of the film’s finest scenes, a surreal drug trip that comes out of nowhere. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson took a chance here, but it remains my favourite role of his – he’s charismatic, ironic, twitchy, funny and sympathetic – none of his other roles to date have offered him the chance to expand his repertoire as much as this one.

Kelly’s style is evident as well. There are moments that are reminiscent of Donnie Darko: the importance of music (he has been criticised for basically delivering a series of music videos); the slow motion dance sequences that become unsettling and strangely sinister; the apocalyptic narrative with, at its core, one man’s opportunity for salvation; that stunning tracking shot in the mega zeppelin near the film’s end, as the camera follows Bai Ling through the crowd. Southland Tales is an assault on the senses, each scene filled with beauty and chaos and new things to look for. It’s hectic and manic, seemingly spewing forth without direction, but it all ties together just enough. With references to Revelations, Robert Frost, TS Eliot and others, the characters diverge together, each one responsible for bringing the end of days a little closer, yet all the philosophy is ultimately reduced to one simple question: are you a pimp or not? It’s this kind of audacious combination of high concept and low culture that emphasises the film’s tongue-in-cheek stance – it’s not meant to be taken entirely seriously, but there’s plenty to think about regardless.

I have always maintained that, given enough time, Southland Tales will be reclaimed as a masterpiece. That has yet to happen, but time has been favourable for the most part. In its year of release, it was – like Only God Forgives last year – found on both the “best films” and the “worst films” lists. Its almost perfectly average rating on IMDb (5.5/10) is the result of extreme opinions – everyone either gives it one or ten. For me, this is precisely the kind of film that is interesting: not the average and mundane, but the divisive, the controversial. For better or worse, Southland Tales is the latter – a film that has so much to say it perhaps forgets to say any of it properly, a film that is messy and muddled, stylish and superficial yet complex. For me, it’s one of the finest films of the last ten years. I welcome the counter-arguments!

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 #102: I Love You, Man (2009)

film 102 i love you man

Rating: 4/5

“You nicknamed me Pistol, and I just called you… “Joben”… It means nothing… I don’t… I’m drunk… I’m gonna call a cab.”

Most likely thanks to Judd Apatow, Paul Rudd has become one of the surprise stars of the last ten years or so. Yes, before that he was Phoebe’s husband in Friends, and long before that he was the unlikely love interest in Clueless, but arguably it was the success of The 40 Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up that really propelled Rudd forwards, culminating in two of my favourite recent comedies: Role Models and I Love You, Man. In the latter, Rudd pairs up with Jason Segel, and the combination of two of the most likeable actors working today results in, as expected, a very likeable movie – a comedy that tones down the gross-out and focuses on the natural charm of the characters instead.

I Love You, Man begins with an engagement and ends with a wedding, but the bride is fairly inconsequential – this is straight-up bromance. After a short courtship, Peter Klaven (Rudd) proposes to his girlfriend Zooey (Rashida Jones), only to realise that the upcoming wedding threatens to reveal his lack of male friends. Peter’s the quintessential girlfriend-man – unthreatening, polite, thoughtful and considerate, more interested in the domestic pleasures of cuddling on the sofa while watching HBO than necking pints and participating in belching competitions with the guys. Suddenly concerned that he has no one to be his best man, he starts trying to find a platonic male friend – a much more difficult task than first imagined. Cue a series of ill-fated and ridiculous man-dates (including one misconstrued actual date with Doug, who pops up sporadically to steal the scene), until one day, by chance, he meets the man who could be The One: Sydney Fife (Segel), a big, affable man-child with a man-cave to rival any other.

It’s a simple premise, and the story meanders along pleasantly, punctuated by some truly funny moments – many thanks to Rudd’s awkward charm. Yet underneath there’s something about the narrative that really rings true – it might all be a bit ridiculous (Lou “The Hulk” Ferrigno plays an important role, for instance), but at its core it’s a story about the importance of friendship, and how new friendships can affect existing relationships. Peter and Sydney’s blossoming friendship has repercussions – it’s not all epic jam sessions and impromptu moped-duets. Sydney himself is quite an enigma, despite his apparent straightforwardness – his motivation for really embracing Peter as a friend stems from more than the fact that they appear to be a perfect odd couple, for example, and it’s something that many twenty- and early-thirty-somethings could relate to.

Rudd and Segel are supported by a plethora of familiar faces, actors who you recognise but can’t quite work out from where, as well as some more recognisable names. As well as Jaime Pressley, Andy Samberg and the always wonderful JK Simmons, Jon Favreau pops up, offering a contrast to Peter’s attributes: whereas Peter is the man that mothers love, Favreau’s Barry is the typical asshole husband – rude, crude, uncooperative. He’s pretty much the only unlikeable character of the bunch although, unexpectedly, if anyone was to take second place it may well be Zooey. Perhaps emphasising the importance of a guyfriend (bros before hos, after all), as Peter finally starts socialising and embracing his inner man, Zooey appears to develop some reservations about the whole situation. Indeed, the fledgling bromance quickly reveals how little the future bride and groom actually know about each other. Yet, this being a nice kind of movie, balance is restored in the end – I suppose, given the subject matter, it’s intentional that the relationship we’re really asked to root for is not Peter and Zooey’s, but Peter and Sydney’s. There are warning flags – what does Sydney actually do for a living? Should you really loan friends money? Shouldn’t he really pick up after his dog?! – but despite all of these, it’s really hard to not root for these two men. They’re so clearly meant for each other, from their mutual love of Rush to their need for some proper male bonding. Girlfriends be damned!

Regardless of the bankability of Rudd and Segel who were, at the time, considered more as solid supporting actors, I Love You, Man performed only modestly at the box office – although it rode on the coattails of Apatow’s success and was squarely aimed at the same audience, perhaps it’s just too pleasant and understated (even with the projectile vomiting scene) to make much of an impact. It might not be the most dynamic movie, or the most memorable – or even the most laugh-out-loud funny – but the likeability of the two leads and the subtle truths contained within the screenplay makes it not only particularly likeable, but surprisingly insightful as well.

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.

Film #96: Not Quite Hollywood (2008)

film 96 not quite hollywood

Rating: 3.5/5

Mark Hartley’s documentary, a unashamed fanboy look at Ozploitation movies, is fast-paced and frantic, and it’s a lot of fun. As someone who enjoys a good exploitation movie (here I’m using the term to describe the lurid 1970’s movies, filled with sex, gore and fast cars, rather than the classical exploitation films like Reefer Madness or Maniac) but knows little about the output from down under (Braindead is probably the closest I’ve come), Not Quite Hollywood plays out like a “best of” – it’s the kind of movie you feel you should watch with a pen and paper, just so you can make note of all the films to find on DVD later. Luckily for us, I’m pretty sure we have The Howling III: The Marsupials as part of a cheap double feature, but there were plenty more mentioned that looked just as ridiculous, and just as entertaining.

Among the various talking heads, mainly industry people who speak with both fondness and enthusiasm for their past lives, Hartley’s biggest name (for non-Australian audiences, at least) is easily Quentin Tarantino. He’s not listed as “filmmaker” or “director” but as “fan”, and he plays his role to perfection. Whether you’re a fan of Tarantino himself or not will probably influence your reaction to his segments – he drops bits of his own knowledge in, but mostly he comes across as someone emphatically trying to prove that he’s part of the gang. As a “fan” the anecdotes he details are the least interesting – it’s far more fun (and informative) to hear the stories from the people actually involved in the movies – but he does at least provide some context, and a recognisable face.

It is the films themselves who are the stars of the documentary, however. Hartley breaks up his narrative with sections focusing on specific strands of Ozploitation – the nudie pictures, the gore films, the racing movies. The general attitude running throughout is most definitely one of appreciation, with a healthy dollop of nostalgia thrown in for good measure: these were low-budget movies, made at a time when the Australian film industry was still a fledgling trying to find its place in the world, and for every Picnic at Hanging Rock, there were fifteen Turkey Shoot‘s being made to muddy the waters. It was a time of limited regulations, when stunt men risked their lives on a daily basis and women stood full frontal on screen and, while the rose-tinted glasses are definitely on, it’s difficult to not be slightly shocked at the hazardous working conditions rife in the 1970s. Even those involved must be quite surprised at how few deaths there were, considering what was going on.

While the films themselves are undeniably fun, compiled together in rapidly edited “best of” montages, Not Quite Hollywood starts to outstay its welcome a little bit. Perhaps it’s the obvious fan-nature of the movie that starts to grate – it’s interesting and informative, but at times feels a bit directionless, throwing another sequence of explosions and screaming women in rather than going beyond the surface. Evidently, while Ozploitation is not well known, there were a huge amount of films to emerge at the time, and Hartley seems to be trying to fit them all in, without really going into much detail about any of them. It is a fast movie, and it’s easy to be distracted by yet another reel of spectacle but, without my pen and paper at hand, the countless movies I saw clips of – the films I wanted to hunt down and watch in their entirety – have all blurred together to make one giant, mostly naked, slightly seedy, bloody, violent, apocalyptic road movie that only exists in montage. In fact, perhaps watching compilation videos of all the best bits of these films is actually the best way to watch them – surely I’ll be disappointed now, if I watched them; surely they’d never live up to the breakneck speed and apparently constant insanity that Hartley suggests?

After Not Quite Hollywood, Hartley went on to shoot the superbly titled Machete Maidens Unleashed!, another documentary, with the same formula (talking head segments interspersed with numerous movie montages), this time focusing on the American exploitation films shot in the Philippines. This is an area I’m more familiar with – Roger Corman shot several films there, as did Al Adamson and Eddie Romero – and the documentary was more fun for me as a result. However, my knowledge of the “Blood” series (Brides of Blood, Mad Doctor of Blood Island, etc) means that I am all too aware of the fact that many of these movies are slow, shoddy, and dull – until the few moments of outlandish stupidity. Is Ozploitation the same? If it is, Not Quite Hollywood does a good job at hiding this fact. And maybe really all you can do is watch the movies themselves to find out – if you do, I’m sure Hartley would consider his job done.

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.”