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?

Advertisements

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.

Film #104: Troll Hunter (2010)

film 104 troll hunter

Rating: 4.5/5

“They are not bright. They manage to eat. But how hard is it to survive on rocks?”

Almost as soon as it was released in the UK it was announced that Troll Hunter was going to be getting the now expected English-language remake. As of September 2013 writer-director Neil Marshall (Dog Soldiers, The Descent) was linked to the film, admittedly making it a slightly more appealing venture, but quite frankly Hitchcock himself could be on board and it would still be an utterly pointless project. Fortunately there seems to be no recent information on IMDb, suggesting the remake has been ditched – fingers crossed. If people can’t be bothered to read the subtitles, then they can just miss out on this little genre gem.

Like many of the “found footage” films of recent years, Troll Hunter takes the realistic medium and adds a supernatural twist. Echoing so many films that have gone before (the horror genre in particular is over-saturated with cheap, shaky hand-cam found footage movies), opening titles inform the viewer that what they are about to see is some of 200-plus hours of footage shot by a small group of students. This proviso also handily explains why the film is so neatly edited – dead time is missing, and the pace (unlike so many inferior films of the genre) is quick, because someone has helpfully compiled all the stock into a palatable movie. And then it begins: three college kids, Thomas (Glenn Erland Tosterud), the announcer, seen most often on the screen, Johanna (Johanna Mørck), in charge of capturing sound, and Kalle (Tomas Alf Larsen), the cameraman are out in the rugged wilderness of the Norwegian countryside apparently trying to shoot a film about bear poaching. Having spoken to some of the official bear hunters, it becomes evident that someone else is also on the hunt – a mysterious poacher with a ramshackle old caravan and a grumpy disposition. Initially reluctant to speak on camera, this gruff individual – Hans (Otto Jespersen) – eventually allows the trio to follow him on what turns out to be his troll hunting expeditions.

There’s so much to like about Troll Hunter. Despite its genre title and the overwhelming potential to be another disappointing, annoying, cheap found footage flick, it’s smart, dry, and expertly made, with some good jumpy moments and a healthy dash of humour. Poor Hans, Norway’s only troll hunter, finally agrees to be filmed not because he’s been caught out, but because he’s sick of all the bureaucracy and the lack of employment benefits – he doesn’t even get paid unsociable hours, despite being out hunting trolls every night. It’s a thankless job, and he’s sick of it. Like a troll-hunting Van Helsing, he works tirelessly to keep Norway safe and, although we find out very little about him, he seems to be a rather complex individual – worn out and tired of the bloodshed, yet unable to retire. In contrast, the kids – who we follow throughout the film – are excellent substitutes for the viewer: mildly irritating at the beginning, because of their doggedness more than anything, then suitably incredulous as Hans first comes rushing through the woods screaming, “Troooooooollll!” moments before something destroys their car and eats their tyres, then excited to be the ones documenting such a scoop.

And what a scoop it is. Also distinguishing it from the other cheap horror movies, Troll Hunter doesn’t shy away from showing its spectacle and, when the trolls are shown, they’re utterly delightful. They look exactly how trolls should look – depending on their breed, they’re furry, hairy, gigantic, have comically stupid-looking faces with bulbous potato-noses, yet still manage to look fearsome. As Hans says, they’re not the brightest creatures, but they’re still dangerous – particularly the ones the group are coming up against here, who seem to be acting especially erratically. It’s here also that it becomes so evident that a remake is pointless, because the trolls are so firmly embedded in Norwegian culture. The craggy, desolate but beautiful landscape has been shaped by the trolls – rocky patches of land are the result of feuding trolls throwing boulders at each other, for example. I’m sure native audiences would pick up on many more references, but even non-Norwegians ought to be familiar with some of the fairy tales mentioned in the film – there’s a clear reference to Three Billy Goats Gruff, for instance. There are also some interesting modern variations on classic themes – Hans warns the trio that they mustn’t believe in God, because trolls can smell the blood of a Christian man, yet later on no one is sure what will happen when a Muslim joins the group. It’s a wonderfully light touch, pointing out the flaws in local legends and pointing to the increased multiculturalism today (has anyone dealt with this in a vampire context, by the way? Would, for example, Indian vampires still fear the cross?!)

I’ve never been much of a fan of the found footage films – having had to watch far too many straight-to-DVD movies of the type for review purposes (like this one, or this), I’ve long tired of the shoddy, stomach-churning incoherence and unsatisfactory conclusions that dominate the style. Yet Troll Hunter stands apart from these shoddy disappointments: it’s great fun, clever and, unlike so many of the inferior examples, it truly delivers. By the end, I was completely sold: obviously there are trolls in Norway. Even the prime minister said so.

Film #101: Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010)

film 101 cave of forgotten dreams

Rating: 4/5

“Are we today the crocodiles who look back into the abyss of time when we see the paintings of Chauvet cave?”

Finally, a Werner Herzog film (there are plenty more to come) – one of his most recent, and his only venture into 3D. Cave of Forgotten Dreams arrived on the big screen just as the arthouse cinemas were admitting defeat and installing 3D-ready projectors and screens, but I have to admit that, having watched it in both formats now, something is actually lost in the 2D version. Generally, I believe that 3D should only be used as a gimmick – at least when it’s used in films like Piranha 3D and A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas you know you’re going to get your money’s worth. 3D is, and always will be, a gimmick, so if there aren’t things flying out of the screen towards my face, generally I’m not interested. Herzog doesn’t throw anything at our faces here, but his subject matter – the spectacular cave paintings found, perfectly preserved, in 1994 at what are now called the Chauvet Caves in France – really benefits from that third dimension. In his narration, Herzog talks about how the painters used the undulations of the cave walls in their art; he attempts to recreate the flickering light of a fire to show how the pictures move and warp. In 2D it’s fairly easy to imagine, but in 3D – as loathe as I am to admit it – the effect is truly realised.

The Chauvet Cave paintings, the oldest known in the world, are somewhere in the region of 32 000 years old. Found in 1994 by three explorers, access is now severely limited – this is no tourist trap, but a carefully, meticulously examined and preserved site of huge importance. Protected by a landslide thousands of years ago, the cave is pristine – the floor is littered with the bones of long-extinct animals, now covered with a fine dusting of calcite, making everything sparkle. The paintings themselves – dozens of beautiful renditions of animals – are so fresh that, when they were found, they were suspected to be a hoax.

Herzog’s film offers people a rare opportunity to see such important works. With other cave paintings destroyed by mould that grew as a result of tourists’ breath, there’s no chance that us regular folk will ever be granted access. Herzog secured his visits by agreeing to take only one euro in payment, and his film was sponsored by the French Ministry of Culture. Using stringent methods, there’s a rawness to the resulting film – its guerilla-style filmmaking reminded me of one of Herzog’s early documentaries, the stunning La Soufriere, in which the director and a few friends travel to a small island about to be devastated by a volcanic eruption. The space inside the caves is often cramped and restricted so, as Herzog acknowledges, the tiny film crew (only four people for the interior shots) cannot avoid being captured on screen also. Their equipment is rudimentary, restricted so as to cause the least amount of damage to the paintings (it should be said that the sometimes shaky, hand-cam footage does not work in 3D at all).

Once in the caves, however, Herzog allows the paintings to be the star of his film. Long sequences pass by without comment, punctuated by the director’s trademark soundtrack, composed by long-standing collaborator Ernst Reijseger. The haunting orchestral score imbues the images, and the cave itself, with an solemnity – almost a spiritualism – and it becomes easy to imagine the space being once not only a special, but a sacred, place for the people who so carefully daubed the walls. These moments quietly ask for contemplation, and the absence of narration gave us time to discuss the implications of the images on screen. The paintings are stunning, perfectly capturing not just the physicality of these animals (bison, lions, bears, and horses, among others – there is one human on the walls, tantalisingly concealed behind a rock, but it’s the only painting that, to me, doesn’t immediately make obvious what its subject matter is. Is it really the lower half of a woman, with a bison head? The bison part is clear, but I remain sceptical of the rest – perhaps we’re just desperate to be represented) but their essence – they come to life on the walls. Yet there is so much more to them. Herzog doesn’t comment on the fact that the cave has now been sealed off from the world, perfectly, artificially preserved, but it seems particularly pertinent when he acknowledges that some of the paintings appear to have been done five thousand years apart. To put that into perspective – just over two hundred years ago, the Lewis and Clark Expedition set off to discover whether it was possible to reach the west coast of America. There wasn’t even a road, and now there’s LA – in the Chauvet Caves, five thousand years passed, and someone returned to add to the artwork. My brain cannot comprehend such vast swathes of time. Can you imagine someone going and touching up the Mona Lisa, or The Last Supper? Today, what is sacred is preserved, remaining untouched and hidden away from prying eyes or errant hands – it’s a curious aspect of humanity that, I guess, simply wasn’t a factor so many millennia ago.

He might not specifically question this, but it is still a Herzog documentary and, naturally, his interests are varied and obscure. He spends time considering “humanness” – what makes us human, whether these cave paintings are the first physical indication of the discovery of a soul. His interviews with scientists and archaeologists tends to deviate from specifically relevant information – he asks about their dreams after first seeing the paintings, talks to an “experimental” archaeologist and a perfumer trying to locate new caves using his sense of smell. Perhaps because he is just incapable of not adding his touch of Herzog-weirdness (or perhaps because we all expect it now), the film’s post-script features mutant albino crocodiles (mentioned in pretty much every review of the film) now living in an artificial nuclear biosphere a few miles away from the caves. Yet really the film is not about this strangeness, but about the paintings, and he presents them with a reverence that indicates his respect for such important works. For Herzog, the paintings are a key moment in human development, bringing beauty and life to the world like the opera does today. They might be hidden away from the hazards of flash photography, grubby shoes, and pesky carbon dioxide, but Herzog brings them back into the light, allowing us all to bear witness to what is arguably one of the most important cultural discoveries ever.

Cinema Lottery #13

cinema lottery 13

Belle; Devil’s Knot; Oculus

Belle
Release date: 13 June 2014
Rating: 3/5

Featuring a steady cast with some recognisable faces (Tom Wilkinson, Miranda Richardson, Emily Watson), Belle is a romanticised period drama with a message. Set in the late eighteenth century, it is based on a true story, that of Dido Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a mixed race child taken in by the wealthy relatives of her father, despite her colour. Much is made of her struggles – treated like a lady but never quite accepted, she cannot dine with her family, nor is she expected to marry (for who would take on a wife with such a shameful past?) – but the film also makes it clear that everyone is bound by circumstance and hindered by their ancestry, whether trying to move up in social rank, or trying to maintain the ranking already achieved.

Belle‘s sincerity is clear from the outset, and it becomes rather overwrought. Visually, despite the splendour on show, it never rises above a well-crafted television period drama. Although it attempts to speak volumes about the slave trade and the inherent, endemic racism of the upper classes, it never really says anything particularly profound, while the characters lack depth. Indeed, the most interesting of the bunch is not Dido herself, nor the idealist son of a vicar proclaiming that all men should be equal, but Dido’s half-sister, a beautiful young lady who becomes even less desirable than Dido simply because she has no dowry. The biggest issue is that Belle attempts to be completely uncontroversial – it seems unlikely that Dido’s family would not have slaves of their own, given their social ranking, for example. Perfunctory, inoffensive but bland, the true story at the core of the film is undoubtedly fascinating, but its presentation here is far from compelling.

Devil’s Knot
Release date: 13 June 2014
Rating: 1/5

The case of the West Memphis Three is a hugely complex scandal sprawling over two decades; it’s a shameful case of sloppy police work and a terrible miscarriage of justice that has spawned several films (there’s another due later this year). This version is a docu-drama, by far the least authentic and least believable presentation of a true story. The story, for those who are unfamiliar, begins in 1993 in West Memphis. Three young boys go missing and, when they are found dead, naked and hog-tied, the police quickly move towards a satanic ritual killing. Three teenagers are convicted, despite it becoming increasingly obvious that they had nothing to do with it, and for the next eighteen years campaigners (including Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder, Peter Jackson, and Johnny Depp) fought for their release. This film, based on a book of the same name, ignores all the post-trial controversy, choosing instead to focus on the trials themselves.

Oddly, there are loads of famous faces dotted throughout Devil’s Knot: Colin Firth is an American investigator, first shown buying a $20 000 antique table for no reason whatsoever except possibly to demonstrate that he is rich; he is entirely irrelevant to the story, but we keep returning to him for some unknown reason. Dane DeHaan (Chronicle, The Place Beyond the Pines) appears for a few scenes. Elias Koteas, Stephen Moyer, Kevin Durand – they’re all there, being obtrusively recognisable, all serving little or no purpose. Reese Witherspoon is Pam Hobbs, the mother of murdered Stevie, and she does an adequate job. In fact, they all do – the biggest problem is the screenplay, which says absolutely nothing about anything.

For those aware of the case, Devil’s Knot offers nothing new. For newcomers, it barely makes any sense. No one is obviously implicated, no new information is provided, no new theories are given, and the whole film is rendered even more pointless by the fact that it has been done before, as recently as two years ago, when West of Memphis was released. That film, a documentary produced by Peter Jackson, is fascinating and informative; this film touches on many, if not all of the details, but fails to find any nuance. Crucial facts are glossed over, others seem to be red herrings, others not mentioned at all. The fictional aspects make the whole thing suspiciously inauthentic, and the most interesting and important facts are only touched upon in the end credits, when it is too late to actually consider any of them. Devil’s Knot is dull, being mostly a courtroom drama, poorly executed, drags on interminably and is an entirely unrewarding, frustrating experience – if you’re interested in the case at all, just watch West of Memphis.

Oculus
Release date: 13 June 2014
Rating: 4/5

It may seem like a particularly high rating, but after the infuriating disappointment in the previous film, and in horror movies in general, Oculus came as a pleasant surprise. Jumping between past and present traumas, it follows a brother and sister attempting to finally destroy the object that caused them so much misery in their childhood – a grand, ostentatious antique mirror with a chequered past. Tim (Brendon Thwaites) has just been released from a mental institution, having finally being declared healthy. He is met by his sister Kaylie (current British sweetheart Karen Gillan) who, as it transpires, has been carefully planning on how to finally defeat this supernatural foe. Despite some hesitation, Tim is caught up in her schemes, which, on the surface, seem to be well-thought-out: she has video cameras set up, alarms that remind them to stay hydrated and fed, people phoning on the hour to check on them, a fail safe as a backup. But, this being a horror movie, it inevitably all starts falling apart.

While the film flits between the events that caused Tim to end up in the facility and the present day, it gradually reveals the whole story. That being said, much remains unsaid – the mirror’s origins, its source of evil, remains hidden, for example. Yet this is the siblings’ story, and in that respect it works well. There are some good jumps too, with a satisfyingly creepy atmosphere. It’s got a good, old-fashioned haunted house vibe, with little in the way of special effects and, crucially, it avoids the current trend in horror films and gets progressively more scary, rather than offering all its jumps at the beginning and then limping on to the end. Its conclusion is inevitable and, indeed, the film itself is not particularly original, but it’s effective nonetheless, leaving some unpleasant visuals (fingernails being ripped off and teeth being pulled out – two of my least favourite things) and a general sense of dread and unease to linger after you’ve left the cinema.

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.

Film #83: Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991)

film 83 hearts of darkness
Rating: 4/5

“There were too many of us, we had access to too much equipment, too much money, and little by little we went insane.”

Film buffs will probably at least be aware of how troubled the shooting of Apocalypse Now was. Filmed in the Philippines (like so many exploitation films around the same time), it was initially intended to be a six week shoot; principal photography eventually ended after sixteen months. Plagued with difficult actors, hurricanes, and political unrest that regularly forced Coppola to stop filming so that the government could use the helicopters that they had provided, not to mention copious amounts of drugs and the general day to day challenges of living in the jungle, what was meant to be a fairly quick, though ambitious, adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, became a monster that threatened to not only make everyone involved insane, but even almost killed its lead actor.

Today, Apocalypse Now is widely considered to be one of the greatest films of all time, capturing the horrors of the Vietnam War, still fresh in people’s minds when it was released in 1979. I’ve not seen it, and my knowledge of it is limited to general trivia and quotes (“I love the smell of napalm in the morning”), and the references to it in a Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode (Restless). It didn’t really appeal to me, but Hearts of Darkness, which documents the problematic shoot and presents a fascinating insight into the heart and mind of a filmmaker determined to see his masterpiece come to life, instantly caught my attention, and did not disappoint. It’s a gripping documentary, with great on-set footage (shot by Coppola’s wife Eleanor) and secretly recorded conversations between the director and his wife. Early in the film, we hear Coppola plaintively stating: “My greatest fear is to make a really shitty, embarrassing, pompous film on an important subject, and I am doing it. And I confront it. I acknowledge, I will tell you right straight from… the most sincere depths of my heart, the film will not be good.” Yet despite the countless problems and issues, he refused to give up, and the results speak for themselves.

It’s hard not to be impressed, particularly today, at just how determined Coppola was. The money and time that was spent making his vision come to life, not to mention the amount of sheer man power (and explosives) is truly incredible – while a similar shoot today would no doubt substitute jungle life for green screens and napalm for CGI post-production effects, the 1970s were a notably different time for filmmaking, with the likes of Coppola, Scorcese, Kubrick, Lucas and Peckinpah paving the way as the creators of “New Hollywood.” Hearts of Darkness demonstrates how determined these new filmmakers were – no longer content with studio work, the 1970s saw a new kind of filmmaking, one that prided itself in realism and politics. It’s fascinating hearing Coppola talking about Apocalypse Now, and equally fascinating to hear his wife discuss her life as a result – the director dragged his whole family over to live in this troubled region. He is revealed to be dogged, obsessed even, and willing to do anything and everything to see his film completed. After Martin Sheen suffers a heart attack during shooting, Coppola responds by saying “If Marty dies, I wanna hear that everything’s okay, until I say, “Marty is dead,” perfectly capturing the dogmatic, ruthless supremacy of The Director.

This behind-the-scenes glimpse into Apocalypse Now, and the filmmaker(s) determined to bring a vision to life, is wonderfully honest, and filled with instantly recognisable faces – Marlon Brando, paid vast sums of money to appear in a small, though crucial role only to turn up on set tremendously overweight and sufficiently embarrassed about his physical condition that he refused to be portrayed as what he was; Dennis Hopper, clearly high as a kite during the shoot; George Lucas ruminating on Coppola’s vision and choosing to steer clear; a young Sofia Coppola suddenly relocated to the jungles while her father goes, as he himself admitted, insane. The stories told are evidence of the insanity, as the cast and crew remain isolated from the “civilised” world of Hollywood and the comforts of American living, as the money fritters away and the critics become more and more doubtful as to whether the film will ever see the light of day. It’s a true testament to Coppola’s determination that Apocalypse Now was finished – although one gets the feeling that, even had half his cast keeled over, if a hurricane had wiped out the country, if he had been declared bankrupt, he would have carried on, and even if it had killed him, his last breath would have been used to shoot that final image to see his movie completed.