Friday, 28 December 2012

HOLLYWOOD HARD BASTARDS - The Beginning...


HOLLYWOOD HARD BASTARDS:
A YEAR-LONG MOVIE MISSION
by Gary Anderson

Mission Statement

  They’re unkillable, unstoppable, unflappable and irresistible. They’re the masters of the outrageous, racking up unfeasibly high body counts, smirking in the face of danger, always ready with a sly quip or a blistering pun, right before they blow the shit out of absolutely everything. Charismatic, stoic and determined, these Spartans never give up, overcoming unbelievable odds and despicable villains to save the day. They’re cinema’s greatest warriors, titans who walk among us, proving time and time again that no problem, however big or small, can’t be solved without a hearty fistful of dynamic, pulse-quickening, edge-of-your-seat violence.
They’re the Schwarzeneggers, the Van Dammes, the Stallones. They’re living legends. They’re Hollywood’s Hardest Bastards.
  But who is the hardest action hero of them all? Which of Hollywood’s toughest, most grizzled wisecracking bullet-dodgers is more insanely badass than all the rest? The Expendables brought many of the action greats together, but as a team. How much more fun would that movie have been if it was one big testosterone-filled battle royale that finally revealed which gung-ho He-Man is the mightiest of the bunch?  
  This will be my quest. Using my own dodgy, quasi-scientific criteria, from January 1st 2013 I will be watching and analysing at least one film each day from the back catalogue of Hollywood’s ten toughest hombres in order to determine, once and for all, by the law of averages, who is the greatest living ass-kicker of them all. Never mind which star has made the most films, earned the most money or won the most awards. This isn’t about artful mise-en-scene or stirring cinematography. This is about determining, film-for-film, which rock-hard chiselled champion stands head and shoulders above the rest. Every morning for one whole year, I will pick one film at random from the Celebrations Tub of Death to chronicle and rate each Hard Bastard’s performance according to my own carefully considered set of criteria.


  This mission will not just involve watching the classics of the action genre, like Die Hard, Predator or First Blood, though I will be watching those too. That would be far too easy. No, in order to be completely fair, this undertaking must also encompass each star’s cinematic turkeys, their risible direct-to-video obscurities, and the early career oddities. The only material ruled out for selection will include TV shows, made-for-TV movies, cameos and uncredited appearances and the vast majority of appearances in children’s films. However, if the Hard Bastard has starred in a film where butt has been kicked or baddies have been blown to smithereens, you can rest assured it will be included here.
THE HARD BASTARDS 
So, who are our contenders? It was tough to decide (sorry Snipes), but after much careful deliberation, here, in no particular order, are the Toughest Ten, each of whom have accrued a significant body of legendary, bone-snapping action movie work:
ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER


Arnold Schwarzenegger was born on July 30, 1947, near Graz, Austria. With an almost unpronounceable surname and a thick Austrian accent, who would have ever believed that a brash, quick talking bodybuilder from a small European village would become one of Hollywood's biggest stars, marry into the prestigious Kennedy family, amass a fortune via shrewd investments and one day become the Governor of California? A distinguished Hard Bastard.
MEL GIBSON


Born in Peekskill, NY on January 3, 1956, Mel Gibson moved to Australia during his youth and went on to pursue a film career. After appearing in the Mad Max and Lethal Weapon series, Gibson eventually directed and starred in the Academy Award-winning Braveheart and directed The Passion of the Christ. Outside of his work, Gibson has been accused of homophobia, anti-semitism, racism and misogyny. A mad Hard Bastard.
CLINT EASTWOOD

Born on May 31, 1930 in San Francisco, California, Clint Eastwood got his big break starring on the TV western Rawhide. He then became immensely popular as a tough guy via a string of Sergio Leone movie westerns and the Dirty Harry franchise. In recent years, Eastwood has directed many films, including the Academy Award-winning projects Unforgiven, Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby and Changeling. An old school Hard Bastard.
BRUCE WILLIS

Born Walter Bruce Willison on March 19, 1955, in West Germany, Bruce Willis's career was launched when he played wisecracking David Addison on TV's Moonlighting opposite Cybill Shepherd. In the summer of 1988, Die Hard, an action-packed flick that cast Willis as the muscle-pumping hero, hit movie screens with a bang, and his status as a bona fide movie star was minted.  A cocky Hard Bastard.
JASON STATHAM


English born, Syndenham, London raised, Statham is the second son of a dancer and a lounge singer. Although he had artistic talent running through his veins, he instead focused on his athletic abilities at the high dive. His diving abilities were so impressive that he joined the British Olympic team in 1988 in Seoul, Korea. After 10 years in the National Diving Squad, a talent agent led him to the modeling industry. Broke into acting in such an unconventional way, Jason Statham has really found his path in the film industry through his work in action pictures like The Transporter and soared to be one of the most popular actors of the genre by the 21st century. The young upstart Hard Bastard.
STEVEN SEAGAL


He's an action superstar surrounded by controversy and crime. Steven Fredric Seagal was born on 10 April 1952 in Lansing, Michigan where he lived until he was five years old. Seagal started his martial arts training at the age of seven, travelling to Japan at the age of 17, where he taught English and perfected his martial arts skills, paving the way for him to work his way into the movie industry. He skyrocketed to fame in 1988 with an action-packed debut in Above the Law, but long before then, he was known to martial arts insiders as the first Caucasian to open his own aikido dojo in Japan. Also an accomplished and celebrated musician. A cultured Hard Bastard.
JEAN-CLAUDE VAN DAMME

Jean-Claude Camille François Van Varenberg, better known to movie audiences as JCVD, ‘The Muscles from Brussels,’ is a Belgian martial artist, actor, and director best known for his martial arts action films. After studying martial arts intensively from the age of ten, Van Damme achieved national success in Belgium as a martial artist and bodybuilder. He emigrated to the United States in 1982 to pursue a career in film, and achieved success with Bloodsport. His martial arts assets, highlighted by his ability to deliver a kick to an opponent's head during a leaping 360-degree turn, and his good looks led to starring roles in higher budgeted movies like Cyborg, A.W.O.L.: Absent Without Leave, and Universal Soldier. Most recently seen hamming it up in dodgy beer commercials. A roundhouse-kicking Hard Bastard.
DOLPH LUNDGREN

A graduate in chemistry from Washington State University, chemical engineering from the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm and the University of Sydney in Sydney, Australia in 1982, Lundgren holds a rank of 3rd dan black belt in Kyokushin Karate and was European champion in 1980 and 1981. While in Sydney, he became a bodyguard for Jamaican singer Grace Jones and began a relationship with her. They moved together to New York City, where after a short stint as a model and bouncer at the Manhattan nightclub The Limelight, Jones got him a small debut role in the James Bond film A View to a Kill. Lundgren's breakthrough came when he starred in Rocky IV in 1985 as the imposing Russian boxer Ivan Drago. Since then, he has starred in more than 40 movies, almost all of them in the action genre. So hard, masked burglars abandoned a robbery after discovering the home they had targeted was his. Smart thieves, and a smart Hard Bastard.
CHUCK NORRIS

Born on March 10, 1940, Chuck Norris started studying martial arts in Korea in the 1950s. He was serving in the U.S. Air Force at the time. When he returned home, Norris soon opened his karate studio. He switched to movies in the 1970s, appearing with Bruce Lee in Return of the Dragon. Norris became a popular action-film star in the 1980s, and starred in his own television series in the 1990s. Chuck Norris doesn’t call the wrong number. You answer the wrong phone. A legendary Hard Bastard.
SYLVESTER STALLONE

Born on July 6, 1946, in New York City, Sylvester Stallone is one of the most popular Hollywood action stars of all time, playing such iconic characters as John Rambo and Rocky Balboa. Stallone got his start writing and starring in Rocky, going on to become one of Hollywood's highest paid actors, usually playing monosyllabic, anti-society, underdog heroes and also known for his machismo. Stallone is an American actor, screenwriter, film director, filmmaker and occasional painter. While Stallone has attempted to extend his range into film comedies and drama, his real box office success continues in action films. The underdog Hard Bastard.
THE CRITERIA 
The big question is, how have these ten titans managed to endure? What qualities have ensured that these are the guys who immediately spring to mind when we think of bullet-riddled, high-octane, skull-cracking movie mayhem?
  Rated out of ten, the first of five criteria of judgement for considering a Hard Bastard’s kickass credentials will be INDESTRUCTIBILITY. A true hero dominates, consistently overcoming unbelievable odds. Men fear, respect and obey them and women want them, as they are so damn tough as to appear nigh-on unkillable, battling on, despite life-threatening injury, through storms of bullets, in the name of truth, justice or good old-fashioned survival. A real action star displays a superhuman, tenacious bouncebackability that sets him apart from the pack. Put simply, he cannot be stopped.
  Our heroes will also be judged on the impressiveness of their COMBAT SKILLS. Far from being simple bruisers, these hardmen dispatch their prey with grace confidence and a sleekness that turns killing into a gorgeous, balletic art-form. The Hard Bastard does everything with style and force, but when he’s on his game, there is nothing forced about it. Be it by kung fu, household implements or just a bloody big gun, extra points will be awarded for any bloodshed that involves a healthy dose of aesthetically pleasing, expertly choreographed imaginative creativity.

  Also important is a Hard Bastard’s ATTITUDE – his view on life and the set of values that he embodies. True heroes display courage, commitment and honour, cutting a swathe through red tape and bureaucratic bullshit to do what’s right, no matter how difficult it may be. More often than not these hardy hotshots do all this with a smile on their face and a killer wisecrack on the tip of their tongue, exuding an inner and outer strength that lets the bad guys know exactly who the baddest cat in the room is. Of course, there will be extra points for pitch-perfect puns and effortless success with the ladies.
  The fourth important quality for consideration in this battle of badassery is that which makes the hero truly memorable: his sheer OUTRAGEOUSNESS. These warriors stand out in history because, with a little movie magic, their actions often verge, quite brilliantly, on the sheer ridiculous. Whether they’re displaying a MacGuyver-like resourcefulness for getting themselves out of difficult scrapes, or pulling off insane, death-defying stunts, these guys consistently prove that they are capable of far more than mere mortals. From leaping from great heights to taking out helicopters with speeding automobiles, these Hard Bastards leave their mark, casually doing the sorts of things we can only dream of, the kind of insane, inspiring action that makes you leap from your seat and punch the air with a hearty ‘HELL YEAH!’ These guys blow stuff up in the most spectacular ways, assuring their immortality, and suffice to say, points will be awarded for inspired ludicrousness.

  Finally, each hard-boiled hero will be judged on the scale of their cinematic BODYCOUNT. Plain and simple, a true action star gains his stripes by offing a whole heap of bad guys and I will be counting each and every kill in every movie. Points will be awarded appropriately, determined by kills-per-minute in relation to the standard set by Stallone in Rambo (2008) with 87 kills in 92 minutes(!) It’s science, folks.
 So, there you have it. I am about to embark on what I hope will be an exciting, entertaining, enlightening and life-changing journey. It’s going to be one hell of a year and God knows how I am going to manage to squeeze in an action flick every single day (I just got engaged – uh oh!) but it’s going to be fun finding out! Of course much of my findings will be purely subjective, but by this time next year, I will hope to prove, once and for all, who is the toughest hardest bastard in the universe.

Yippie Ki Yay, movie-lovers!

Monday, 29 October 2012

Sunday, 14 October 2012

SLANTED AND ENCHANTED - THE FAIRY TALE MOVIE RENAISSANCE




Once upon a time, in a faraway realm called Hollywoodland, there lived a powerful mogul. He had a wonderful looking-glass, and he stood in front of it and looked at himself in it, and said, “Looking-glass, looking-glass, on the wall, what’s a safe bet for a gigantic financial haul?”
  Magically flickering to life, the looking-glass answered, “Fairy Tale Movies, my king. The punters will love them.” And the king was satisfied, for he knew that the mirror spoke the truth.
“Oh, and get Kristen Stewart,” the looking-glass added, “She’s so hot right now.”
  2012 is fast becoming the Year of the Fairy Tale. Locked away in their castles, the movie men have been engaged in some kind of sorcery, with at least fifteen major big-screen adaptations of classic fables currently in production and a slew of others in development, after Tim Burton’s surprise billion-dollar box-office success with 2010’s vivid Alice in Wonderland opened the eyes of many a magnate to the commercial possibilities of these enduring, classic tales. This year, audiences have already been treated to two decidedly divergent versions of Snow White, in the shape of Tarsem Singh’s family-friendly Julia Roberts vehicle Mirror Mirror, and Rupert Sanders’ markedly morose Kristen Stewart starrer, Snow White and the Huntsman. Though Mirror…, with its jaunty musical numbers and mugging Nathan Lane faltered at the box office, the $300 million gross of the far more austere …Huntsman has proven that there remains something positively spellbinding about the fairy tale formula that is built to last.
  Already on the slate for this year is Usual Suspects helmer Bryan Singer’s big budget vision of Jack the Giant Killer, featuring X-Men: First Class star Nicholas Hoult battling Bill Nighy’s 22 foot tall CGI ogre. Hot on its enormous heels comes the ridiculously high concept Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, with Avengers’ Jeremy Renner and Prince of Persia’s Gemma Arterton as adult, bloodthirsty bounty-hunter versions of the eponymous duo, suggesting there’s plenty of mileage left in these age-old fables.
  Accounting for their bewitching popularity, Jack Zipes, one of the leading authorities on fairy tales, wrote in his book, What Dreams Come True, that these stories emanate from ‘specific struggles to humanise bestial and barbaric forces which have terrorised our minds and communities in concrete ways, threatening to destroy free will and human compassion. The fairy tale sets out to conquer this concrete terror through metaphors.’
    Deep stuff, but for many, Zipes’ words surely ring true. These are the tales we are told as children, imparting wisdom, fostering development and helping us work through confusion and anxiety in a sugar-coated ‘once upon a time’ way. Thanks to Walt Disney’s ‘safe’, technicolour animated interpretations, and the straightforward way they deal with common truths and feelings, stories like Cinderella and The Little Mermaid carry a comfortable predictability and will forever hold an important place in the collective subconscious, remaining ripe for artistic reinvention.
  By taking universally understood symbols, or archetypes – think ‘witch’, ‘prince’, ‘princess’, ‘magic beans/sword/whatever’ – these familiar yarns, in the hands of different storytellers, can be eternally recycled in strange new settings, yet can always be relied on to deliver certain fundamental, familiar features. Some symbols, like ‘Jack’s beanstalk’ will always be an integral component of their respective tales, and Dr Laura Martin, a senior lecturer in Comparative Literature at the University of Glasgow, and an expert on Grimm tales, has reflected on the significance of these enduring motifs: ‘There’s a huge growth going up into the sky…why is that? It’s connecting earth to the sky. It’s the realm of something beyond the human, so it’s that connection with something bigger…Psychologically, it’s brilliant. So, life is boring, life is dull, but what if I made it to that magical realm?’ Escapism is a huge part of our movie-going experience and with our ticket, we purchase more than just entertainment – these tales, when told well,  bring us that little bit closer to the kingdom of our dreams.
 The malleability of these stories, stemming from centuries of retellings, has recently seen filmmakers cook up all manner of curious interpretations. Last year, Catherine Hardwicke’s Red Riding Hood attempted to distil the success of her yearning, sexually-charged, pretty young things Twilight template into the fairy tale mould, delivering a thoroughly ridiculous, yet straight-faced guilty pleasure. Likewise, Julia Leigh’s provocative Sleeping Beauty tapped into and drastically amplified the eroticism of the classic tale, ensuring audiences would never be able to look at Lemony Snicket’s Emily Browning in quite the same way again.
  These mouldable, magical tales have been around for as long as stories have been told, but it is surely a sign of the times that so many remarkable renditions are sailing into cinemas at once. In an industry currently banking the big money on sequels, franchises and remakes, the public’s fondness for fairy tales must seem like a license to print money. But what is it that compels us to return to them, time and time again?
 Martin argues that, in morally ambiguous times,  they teach us how to be upstanding citizens: ‘What we have now as fairy tales were probably once told round the fireside…people singing, telling tales, doing jokes, but they’re somehow making meaning. They’re learning how to behave and how not to behave. That’s a basic fairy tale message – do the right thing at the right time.’
 This relevance of fairy tales as moral parables could be vital in explaining the renaissance of all things fantastic. An important touchstone for Martin is the work of Carl Jung, who believed that a ‘collective consciousness,’ including values shared by all human beings, can be revealed through the peculiar symbols and archetypes found in our favourite fantasy tales. Referencing the stuttering economy, she explains, ‘everything’s falling apart and maybe it’s giving us this kind of core…that we all want the same thing and we magically hone in on the same sort of tale.’ In these uncertain times, perhaps we all need the solace of happy endings.
 It can be no coincidence that many of these retellings, particularly Sanders’ …Huntsman, with its gruesome visuals and Charlize Theron’s genuinely terrifying villainess, are returning these tales to decidedly darker territory than Uncle Walt ever envisioned. It’s easy to forget that before Disney gave it a facelift, the Brothers Grimm’s Snow White featured an evil queen who heartily devoured vital bodily organs and who got her comeuppance by being forced to dance in red-hot slippers until she fell down dead. Though Sanders’ picture isn’t quite so macabre, it is notable that the relatively austere …Huntsman, with its kingdom in turmoil offering gloomy parallels with riot strewn streets of contemporary ‘Broken Britain,’ fared far better than Singh’s whimsical Mirror Mirror. This gritty gloominess could well be the key to convincing audiences that these tales still have something to offer. Certainly, Chris Thor Hemsworth’s gruff, axe-swinging Huntsman offered more to tempt hesitant males into cinemas than Arnie Hammer’s doltish Prince, and Gemma Arterton’s assertion in a recent Entertainment Weekly interview, that Hansel… will be ‘very dark and bloodthirsty,’ with a ‘Tarantino feel,’ cannot have harmed the film’s chances with the male demographic.
 The success of films, like …Huntsman, could also have much to do with the emergence of tougher, aspirational female leads.  Martin believes the ‘Disneyfied’ versions of these tales did women no favours, explaining that ‘with sweet little birds flying around, with Snow white helping the dwarves do their housework, basically, she’s a little housewife. So any sort of energy in her as a heroine is gone.’ The Girl Power, however, is strong with teen-icon Kristen Stewart, and this is perhaps another reason why …Huntsman’s assertive, armoured championess has caused such a stir with movie-goers. ‘There’s no copyright to telling stories,’ Martin continues, ‘but you can rightly talk about what gets lost in some versions.’  These are films about women claiming back the ‘energy’ that years of ‘Disneyfied’ retellings have drained from them.  These are tales of peasant revolt, about the little guy sticking a finger up at wicked rulers. The key to the fairy tale renaissance could be that in these troubled times, the grown-ups have decided it’s time to reclaim these fables that have long been censored and sanitised by market forces. By returning them to their roots as folk-tales shared by adults, the potential for action, adventure and thrills can be restored, with a satisfying dose of sticking-it-to-The-Man that keeps everyone happy. Seemingly, just the right witches’ brew of revolutionary escapism, nostalgia and cross-gender appeal can keep the studios laying golden goose eggs for a while yet.
  A list of impending releases longer than Rapunzel’s tangled locks, including Guillermo del Toro’s mooted take on Beauty and the Beast and Tim Burton’s gestating Pinocchio project, should be evidence enough that the cherished, infinitely adaptable fairy tale movie template continues to represent a suitably ‘safe bet’ for the studios. These were tales told round the campfire, never set in stone, but mutating, adapting and enduring as a sign of the times, and as long as we want to return to these enchanted kingdoms, Hollywood will happily keep conjuring new ways to grant our wishes.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

LIKE CRAZY



Love can be a moment’s madness. In Drake Doremus’ melancholy drama, idealistic English college student Anna (Chalet Girl’s Felicity Jones) foolishly overstays her US visa after falling hard for charming Californian carpenter Jacob (Fright Night’s Anton Yelchin). When they’re separated, with Anna banned from entering America, what follows is an agonising study of a relationship in freefall.
  Their initial courtship adeptly captures those intoxicating, butterflies-in-the-tummy moments of first love, all intimate close-ups of reticent half-smiles and hopeful glances. Yet, just as giddy, giggly flirtation gives way to heart-wrenching transatlantic yearning, months, then years parted by red tape sees their wide-eyed romantic innocence slowly disintegrate into awkward, frustrated uncertainty.
  There are brief, blissful vacation reunions, but through all the stop-starting, the young lovers discover it’s difficult to simply press pause on life. Throughout, Doremus’ astute mise en scene gradually widens the literal space between the couple, sat separately on public transport, or strolling yards apart following a lover’s tiff, reflecting the growing rift in their hearts.
  Time, too, is presented as fleeting, with one impressively edited visual sequence seeing the twosome’s rapturous ‘summer in bed’ pass by in a depressing matter of seconds.
  Jones and Yelchin deliver commandingly mature performances, authentically encapsulating the fatigue of their star-crossed union. When Jacob has Anna’s beloved writing chair shipped to London as a surprise, Jones’ muted, half-hearted enthusiasm is so perfectly measured, you can practically see the passion begin to dissipate. Similarly, Yelchin plays wounded very well, his forlorn, puppy dog eyes effectively communicating Jacob’s inner anguish.
  Reminiscent of Derek Cianfrance’s similarly morose Blue Valentine, it is a brutal, affecting watch, though Jacob’s refusal to simply move to London makes Anna’s infatuation difficult to swallow. Although the couple’s blind naïvete may occasionally make you feel like knocking their heads together, this is a sober, bittersweet picture for anyone who’s ever been heartbroken.

THE GREY



Former Jedi, Liam Neeson channels his inner Bear Grylls for Joe Carnahan’s engagingly cerebral action thriller about a group of roughneck plane-crash survivors battling for survival against savage wolves in the Alaskan wilderness.
  The brooding, sombre tone is more reminiscent of Carnahan’s earlier work on the grim, gritty Narc, than the hyperactive, bubblegum, explodey silliness of The A-Team, instilling proceedings with a genuine sense of peril. One of cinema’s most unsettling ever plane crash sequences is viewed entirely from Neeson’s point-of-view, not once cutting outside the fuselage, the spectacular set-piece typifying the measured style Carnahan employs throughout.
  Filmed on location, the merciless conditions and sparse lighting give an authentic impression of seclusion in the expansive, unforgiving tundra, and there are plenty of gripping, heart-in-mouth moments with Neeson plunging off cliffs and through frozen rivers to escape his relentless predatory pursuers.
  The wolves themselves, an effective, shrewd mix of CGI and animatronics are glimpsed only fleetingly, with eloquent sound design proving indispensable in the unrelenting build-up of tension. The slightest creak in the distance inspires absolute panic, the omnipresent howling a bleak reminder that time is running out.
  Though the modest lighting occasionally makes it difficult to discern exactly who is being devoured, and supporting players are not sufficiently fleshed-out to make us really care when they do become wolf-fodder, Carnahan still delivers a thrilling and unexpectedly profound experience. The narrative is punctuated by brief, jarring, hyper-stylistic dream sequences, including one emotion-pummelling scene involving a long-haired little girl that provides heartbreaking, poetic insight into one survivor’s fractured psyche.
  But ultimately, this is the Neeson show and the man who, since 2006’s Taken, has become the studios’ seasoned, grizzled, vulnerable hardman of choice, and who reportedly took freezing cold showers to prepare, is superb throughout. Disconsolate eyes hint at inner torment with his world-weary huntsman lending real gravitas to an endurance tale that proves far more emotionally devastating than its action-packed, wolf-punching marketing campaign might have you believe.
  Filming in belligerent conditions, production must have made for an unforgettable experience, making the lack of extra ‘making-of’ features all the more disappointing. Deleted scenes, including a stunning polar bear encounter and extended campfire parlance give some background, and gravel-voiced Carnahan’s droll commentary offers some involving insight on the arduous shoot. However, with a distinct lack of bonus Neeson, this flimsy package feels like a frustrating opportunity missed.
EXTRAS>Commentary >Deleted Scenes

UWE BOLL, ANTICHRIST?




13 February 2011 saw the Berlin premiere of German director Uwe Boll’s solemn Holocaust docu-drama Auschwitz. For the filmmaker, often described as a ‘schlockmeister,’ and best known for campy, critically-reviled, low-budget videogame adaptations like 2003’s House of the Dead, this picture marked the zenith of his efforts in recent years to make more sober, sensitive pictures that might see audiences take him more seriously. In an interview with Die Welt newspaper, Boll proclaimed, ‘for a director like me, who is known for his explicit depictions of violence, it’s my duty to use precisely this talent to show people the atrocities of the Nazis.’ Unfortunately for Boll, it was widely reported that a number of critics would boycott the picture, with many fearing that, based on the director’s reputation, the film could not be anything other than horribly exploitative. Supporting her decision, journalist Sophie Albers wrote in Stern magazine: ‘The words ‘Auschwitz’ and ‘Uwe Boll’ in one breath leads one to fear the worst.’
 Here was a remarkable case of a filmmaker who had somehow managed to accrue such a groundswell of ill-feeling against himself that, in spite of his alleged attempts to turn a corner, his work could be condemned without even being seen. Despite industriously churning out close to twenty films in the last decade and managing to attract big name talent such as Ray Liotta, Jason Statham and Oscar winner Sir Ben Kingsley, Boll, helmer of this year’s forthcoming Age of Greed: The Bailout, has become a decidedly unique hate figure in the movie business – the cinematic equivalent of Lucifer himself.
 Auschwitz would go straight-to-DVD in the UK, to very little fanfare and, like the majority of Boll’s recent pictures, would quickly fade into obscurity. A search on RottenTomatoes.com will yield just one review for the film, the director’s reputation being such that most critics now apparently choose to simply turn a blind eye. The existence of anti-Boll websites, like the ominously titled ‘UweBollIsAntichrist.com,’ as well as a highly publicised online petition imploring Boll to ‘stop directing, producing, or taking part in the creation of feature films,’ is evidence that it is not just the press who dislike him. But how did his reputation become so sullied? Boll’s few defenders do not claim his films are works of art, but they certainly feel that the filmmaker is far from the ‘antichrist’ figure he is made out to be. In an age where audiences are increasingly seeking movie knowledge online, there is an argument that public and critical opinion has been perhaps too easily swayed by the roarings of the passionate coordinators of an internet witch hunt, whose exclamations are getting louder and louder.
 Many of Boll’s films, predominantly low-budget, blood spattered genre fare, are amongst the lowest rated entries on the Internet Movie Database, a forum where many users have chosen to vent their vexations on the filmmaker. Boll himself has often publicly blamed such forums for unfairly ‘sabotaging’ his career and in one message published on IMDb on January 13, 2008 he claimed users have successfully used the messageboards to ‘help destroy me.’ The filmmaker claims, ‘You hate me, you write against me, you hate my movies and you made the critics hate me and you made the theaters not believing in me [sic].’
 Boll’s tirade appears to be more than simple paranoia, as an exploration of these IMDb messageboards, where passions often run high, reveals a culture where users, many admitting to not having actually seen Boll’s films, appear to be actively disparaging them, awarding them low ratings, whilst imploring others to avoid them. On the Auschwitz board, one poster with the handle ‘matt-282,’ writes ‘It’s a movie directed by Uwe Boll, avoid it at all costs! DO NO watch! [sic],’ before confessing, ‘I wouldn’t watch this movie even if someone bribed me.’ Another user, mccutch22, actually posts: ‘If things got to a point where people vote down his movies just for the hell of it, there’s a reason, right? He deserves it.’ These are just two of a multitude of derogatory posts aimed at the filmmaker that make for provocative reading.
  A quick glance at Boll’s filmography may lead to initial mild bafflement as to where this negativity has come from. His early career had been relatively inconspicuous, helming a stream of forgettable, cheap indie thrillers such as Sanctimony (2000) and Blackwoods (2001). Boll was just another nondescript overseer of unremarkable direct-to-video fare, earmarked by cursory plotting, wooden performances and lacklustre camerawork, yet peppered with just enough sex and violent mayhem to make for an easy, if unmemorable watch.
  Then in 2003, Boll’s production company, Boll KG, acquired the rights to popular Sega videogame The House of the Dead, piquing the interest of the franchise’s large, loyal fan base. The zombie horror was the director’s first feature to gain a stateside cinematic release and was heavily marketed towards the game’s hopeful legion of followers. Sadly for Boll, his directorial inadequacies were exposed with a very high-profile flop littered with risible dialogue, nonsensical plotting and ludicrous monster make-up.
  The failure of House… triggered an outpouring of scorn, and the birth of the ‘New Ed Wood’ tag that the filmmaker would struggle to shrug off. Yet, Boll bounced back in 2005 with another videogame adaptation, the Christian Slater horror Alone in the Dark.  Again, the reviews were generally disastrous, and the ire of the videogame diehards was provoked to new levels by a film that many argued bore scant similarity to the source material. Online, fans articulated their rage, condemning Boll’s pictures as inferior imitations of the games they loved, adding fuel to a hate campaign that has snowballed, blighting the director’s career.
  Though many sub-par videogame adaptations like Mortal Kombat (1995), have found a cult following among gaming enthusiasts, one of the largest stumbling blocks for Boll, who has gone on to direct a further seven games adaptations, has been that the gamers have actually been his harshest critics. Dedicated fans can become extremely enamoured with their favourite titles, ensuring any adaptation will have a lot to live up to. Many will hope a film interpretation can capture the essence of what they love about the parent property, perhaps even displaying to non-gamers why the games matter to them. With gamers making such an emotional investment, much of the ill feeling towards Boll inevitably seems to stem from the idea that his ‘betrayal’ of the source material reflects badly on them. For someone like Boll, who has made a big point of making videogame movies, despite repeated protests, the results can be ugly.  Boll’s apparent disrespect has fuelled his detractors’ ire, giving them real purpose: a crusade to destroy him, with the battle being fought online.
 Boll’s case highlights the intriguing effect the web can have on audience reception, and its powerful capacity to effect and sway opinion. In March 2012, in a fascinating example of the internet’s efficiency as a tool for collating and articulating fan frustrations, thousands of devotees of the popular videogame Mass Effect 3 coordinated an extensive online campaign demanding that developer BioWare alter the game’s conclusion. Bowing to fan pressure, Bioware would eventually publish a free download that expanded the game’s climax, setting a dangerous new precedent for developers. In a similar move, after CBS cancelled television drama Jericho back in 2007, scores of fans inundated the network with vicious emails, prompting the series’ swift, if short-lived return.  Despite a similarly wrathful campaign following Warner Bros’ decision to delay the release of the sixth Harry Potter film in 2008, fan power has so far failed to affect film production in quite the same way. However, it is becoming increasingly apparent that if the diehards can shout loud enough, the movie moguls may have to listen.
    Boll did appear to take heed of his critics, attempting to move away from videogame adaptations to direct his own original scripts on films like the thought-provoking genocide exploration Darfur and the kill-spree horror shocker Rampage (both 2009), though the damage appears to have already been done. The few critics who bothered to review these more recent original efforts talked in whispers about how Boll might actually be improving and may have found his niche with films that attempted to spread the message of important social issues to the masses. However, perhaps tellingly, the IMDb ratings for these efforts remained abysmally low, and audiences kept their distance. Boll would find he could do little to placate the wrath of the scores of film fans who felt so aggrieved by his existence that they seemed more than willing to resort to dirty tactics to ensure his unpleasant and messy demise.
  As Boll has claimed, amongst the great slews of space afforded to discussing his work on IMDb, there are suggestions that the far below average star-ratings his films receive could partly be the work of bitter saboteurs. By coordinating multiple low votes, often without even seeing the films, the plan seems to be to keep the ratings low to deter potential viewers.  On the messageboard for 2009’s Stoic, Boll’s gritty, Edward Furlong-starring exploration of the dynamics of prison life, conspiracy theories abound that Boll’s more recent efforts are being deliberately tarred with the same brush as his earlier films by motivated antagonists who refuse to assess them on their own merits. A user with the handle ‘aroundaround’ alleges that at least 51 users had cast one-star votes against Stoic before filming had even been completed. It is also alleged that, the day after the first test screening for just 171 people of Boll’s vampire thriller Bloodrayne (2005), over 360 IMDb users had voted negatively against the film. Before it had even been released, Bloodrayne was already ranked one of the site’s worst films of all time, displaying the web’s capacity to harm a film’s chances if enough people can conspire against it.
 This brings to mind the way that Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008) was able, for a few weeks following its release, to depose The Godfather (1972) from IMDb’s coveted number one spot. Many theorised that this achievement could be put down to a healthy degree of hype or, more interestingly, could have been achieved by careful design on the part of the legion of dedicated Batman fans.  More recently, there has been suggestion of supporters of Nolan and DC Studios forthcoming The Dark Knight Rises (2012) taking to the IMDb page of rival Marvel Studios’ Avengers Assemble (2012) to deliberately cast low votes in an effort to ‘game’ the film’s rating, sabotage its success and to prove, once and for all, that Batman is the definitive superhero icon. Regardless of which film is ‘the best,’ these cases certainly highlight the potential dangers for a film’s publicity when fans become organised and misuse online voting systems for their own agendas.
  In his own vehement IMDb post of January 13, 2008, Boll himself slates the website for ‘opening up my movies for votes almost a year before they are getting released and giving the 1 point votes between 200 and 300% more impact than the 10 point votes.’ On IMDb’s own Voting FAQs page, the site’s administrators, who are careful not to reveal the exact calculating methods used to create their ‘weighted average’ star ratings, rebuff such accusations, stating: ‘various filters are applied to raw data in order to eliminate and reduce attempts at ‘vote stuffing’ by individuals more interested in changing the current rating of a movie than giving their true opinion of it.’ The statement continues: ‘Occasionally we receive mail from people who seem to assume that some favourite movie has been victimised by the weighted ratings, whereas this is not the case.’ However, the administrators do concede that ‘while there is no foolproof way to verify if users have actually seen the film, or that the vote they cast is what they really think about it, we depend on and expect our users to be truthful and only vote on those films they have personally seen.’
 Safeguards may be in place, yet if users continue to impulsively cast negative votes without viewing the films, their actions could prove harmful, highlighting the worrying ways that the unique conditions of online discussion and behaviour can lead to the loosening or abandonment of social restrictions and inhibitions that would otherwise be present in normal everyday interaction. The anonymity of internet blogging allows users to be potentially much crueller than they would otherwise allow themselves to be. The relentless internet bashing, or ‘flaming,’ where users tag discussions with titles like ‘Burn In Hell, Uwe Boll’ could perhaps be put down to what social researchers have dubbed the ‘online disinhibition effect,’  whereby users often experience reduced awareness of other people’s feelings, and feel less inclined to conform to perceived norms.
  The level of malice directed at Boll may also be due in part to the phenomenon of ‘deindividuation,’ a concept in social psychology that refers to the diminishing of one’s sense of individuality that can occur with behaviour disconnected from personal or social standards of conduct. As a faceless member of an online mob of Boll-Bashers, a blogger may be more likely to post a scandalous threat to the director, or deliberately attempt to engage in ‘vote-rigging.’ Like a sensible father who suddenly feels compelled to hurl racist abuse when encompassed by the rammy of a furious football crowd, under the cover of an online alias, surrounded by virtual strangers, normally restrained users might find it easier to take a ‘moral vacation’ and suggest that a filmmaker suffer all manner of violent torture. Social media, when combined with anonymity has proven itself to be a dangerous mixture, one that can quite easily reinforce extremism.
  Boll has been quick to dispel the notion that there is no such thing as bad press. In a 2006 interview for Youtube.com, the director laid out some of the potential ill effects of this dissent, explaining, ‘If there are a lot of negative reviews of a movie, foreign buyers for example, they use that to lowball the price that they pay for the movie.’ Boll stresses that once an abundance of negative currency has been unleashed on the web, justified or not, damage control can be practically insurmountable, explaining, ‘once this image is set in, it is a lot of work to do away with it, or at least to alleviate its consequences.’
  The phrase ‘a million people can’t be wrong’ must be particularly irksome to Boll, as a massive networked game of electronic Chinese Whispers has meant that whether film fans have seen his films or not, the director’s name has become a dirty word. Much of the information available online is far from Gospel, but due to the way we use the web for quick fixes of enlightenment, for someone in Boll’s position it might as well be. With such a dearth of online propaganda devoted to painting the filmmaker in an unfavourable light, a quick Google search of his name probably wouldn’t inspire users to seek out his films for anything more than ironic chuckles, or to see what the fuss is all about. With the ability to research films on our mobile phones while standing in line at Blockbuster, it is becoming progressively easier to let the web dictate our viewing choices.
  In a key scene in Auschwitz, a young woman talks of how Germans who helped Jews in World War II would be imprisoned, explaining that under the boot of the Nazi regime, it was easier to simply ‘follow the current.’ The girl is asked what she would have done, to which she responds, tellingly, ‘the same.’ It is this tendency that humanity has to follow the herd that could very well mean that Boll’s films will, regardless of any improvement in quality, remain largely unseen. This idea of an ‘information cascade,’ of viewers abandoning their own information in favour of inferences based on other people’s opinions means that, by and large, the public will probably continue to believe the hype. Trashing Boll has become fashionable, another ‘meme,’ transmitted through our culture like wildfire, making it all too easy for critics to give him the cold shoulder. It has become the done thing to castigate the director, and it may take a minor miracle for him to overcome it. The rot may have already set in the moment Boll unleashed House of the Dead, riling a community that took an instant dislike to his methods and who, with the influential power of the web, had a powerful weapon with which to strike back.
   Boll finds himself at the mercy of invisible internet assassins who seem to have the final say over how his films are received. Boll has found out the hard way about the difficulties that lie ahead for a filmmaker who inadvertently disrespects or fails to heed the lamentations of these online fan communities. The recent glut of Hollywood remakes, sequels and comic book adaptations indicate that it is becoming increasingly arduous to get a major film made unless the source material is not already treasured by an established fan populace. The fans, possessing the ability to make or break a picture, are slowly coming round to the fact that they are the most powerful people in the media landscape. By harnessing the potential of the internet, be it to campaign through social media, or to hijack a film’s online star-rating, the fanboys are now in charge and the artists are discovering pretty quickly that they will need to play ball or face the consequences.
  We are investing more and more of ourselves into our cultural consumption, increasingly defining ourselves by the things we buy, the books we read and the games we play. A culture so committed can often lash out, sometimes unjustly, at those who meddle with the perceived gratification that immersion in these private fantasy worlds can provide. For many, Uwe Boll is a sort of antichrist, as for so many people entertainment media has become their religion and the German director has sacrilegiously sullied it. Like any organised religion, if you can spread your doctrine far and wide and attract enough disciples, you have the power to alter history and dictate the future. Unfortunately for Boll, his naysayers want him crucified.

LUX AETERNA - A TAINTED REQUIEM



On Friday 22 July 2011, the same day he bombed a government building in Oslo, Norway before carrying out a mass shooting at a political retreat on the country’s Utoya Island, leaving a death toll of 77, right-wing Christian extremist Anders Behring Breivik electronically distributed his 1500 page political manifesto. A collection of spirited diatribes against Islam, and Norway’s liberal immigration policies, the lengthy compendium also detailed how Breivik planned to prepare for his ‘preventive attacks to defend the indigenous Norwegian people.’  In addition to detailing his expected mental state, the extremist disclosed: ‘I will put my iPod on max volume to suppress fear, if needed. I might just put Lux Aeterna by Clint Mansell on repeat as it is an incredibly powerful song.’ He went on:  ‘The track is very inspiring and invokes a passionate rage within you.’
  The song’s title may not be immediately familiar, but for all who hear it, ‘Lux Aeterna’ should be instantly recognisable, thanks to years of repetition in movie trailers, advertisements and sports news bulletins. As stories of the attacks filtered out of Norway, the soundtrack to the sociopath’s rampage - a haunting, urgent composition with a beguiling swirl of ominous neoclassical strings - would also make for a depressingly apt backdrop to footage of the atrocity’s aftermath. With Breivik, acting compulsively on a universe of bizarre, delusional and grandiose thoughts, appropriating it as an anthem  of his ‘low intensity civil war,’ the track takes on sinister new dimensions, foregrounding the way art, once unleashed into the public domain, can become something far beyond the vision of its’ creator.
  ‘Lux Aeterna’ started life as part of composer Clint Mansell’s brooding, evocative score for Darren Aronofsky’s 2000 feature Requiem for a Dream. Aronofsky would describe his drug parable as a ‘monster movie,’ with Mansell’s expressive composition, performed with strings from the Kronos Quartet, said to represent the embodiment of this ‘monster.’  ‘Lux Aeterna,‘ in this context, exists as the musical personification of a theme repeated throughout the director’s work, on films like Black Swan and Pi – the idea of protagonists at war with themselves, blaming outside forces for their woes when in reality it is their internal struggles that cause most damage. The parallels with Breivik, a paranoid schizophrenic who alluded to himself as a ‘knight’ battling multiculturalist ‘traitors’, are too strong to ignore, though the score’s profounder meanings were perhaps slightly lost on the killer. All songs are shaped by the experiences of those who hear, reappropriate or reimagine them, and ‘Lux Aeterna,’ once freed from its creator, would eventually mutate into something else entirely, becoming a celebrated paean to grandiosity, before finding it’s home on a killer’s mp3.
  In 2002, on a visit to the cinema, four years after writing the song, Mansell would hear an altered, even more rousing, revamped version of his composition, utilising full orchestra and choir, blasting out over a trailer for The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Due to overwhelming response, this reworking, arranged by Simone Benyacar, Daniel Nielson and Veigar Margeirsson, was eventually released as an EP entitled ‘Requiem for a Tower.’
  The track’s effectiveness in conveying a thrilling sense of drama swiftly saw this version become ubiquitous in trailers for grandiose, big-budget effects pictures, usually with desperate ‘life-or-death’ situations like Troy, Sunshine and Babylon A.D. More absurdly, the song would soundtrack TV shows like America’s Got Talent and BBC’s Top Gear, popping up to infer high stakes and gripping melodrama and its omnipresence was confirmed when it was employed as the attention-grabbing intro music for Rupert Murdoch’s Sky Sports News channel. In this incarnation, as a sort of musical shorthand for all things ‘epic,’ it is easier to imagine how Breivik could appropriate the composition as a resounding call-to-arms, a commanding theme song for a delusional ‘crusader’ with an overinflated sense of self-importance.
   The composition’s influential, dramatic chord progression, its ability to make the listener feel like something cataclysmic is looming, has seen ‘Lux Aeterna’ embraced not only by canny film and television producers, but also by members of the video-gaming community, who commonly utilise the track as suitably dynamic background music for online video ‘highlight reels’ of achievements in popular role-playing games like World of Warcraft. Breivik’s manifesto details how he would spend days immersed in Warcraft’s Tolkienesque fantasy world to relax and for ‘training simulation.’ It is tempting to imagine the killer, who referred to himself as a ‘Knight Justiciar’ in reference to his Warcraft avatar, hearing the composition in this context and envisioning it as the perfect anthem for an urgent ‘mission’ that, in Breivik’s mind at least, was like the plot to a grand, fantasy epic where he was the hero.
 Though enthusiastically embraced by many as a radical and thoroughly emotive piece, ‘Lux Aeterna’ has nonetheless been dismissed by some film score scholars as overrated, repetitively simplistic and structurally featherweight. Like Breivik’s unsettling, ill-conceived manifesto, the composition is, to the educated, nowhere near as awe-inspiring as the killer might have conceived.  
  Yet its prevalence and longevity in popular culture surely hints at something extraordinary: some mysterious, unquantifiable element at work. With ‘Lux Aeterna,’ Mansell captured lightning in a bottle, uncovering something intangible that endures. Music’s uncanny ability to stir the soul resists the evaluation of language: that indeterminable something that separates the flash-in-the-pan from the phenomenon. The beauty of song is in interpretation, in the creation of powerful emotions not so easily expressed, carrying more weight than their progenitors could ever imagine or hope to control. Unfortunately, for men like Breivik, stood on the precipice of something awful, this capacity to stir can be fatefully poisonous.
  Following the tragic events in Norway, Requiem For a Dream’s stirring musical leitmotif will now and forever be so much more than simply a movie score, and will no doubt continue to acquire deeper layers of meaning each time it is heard.  That it has ended up on the playlist of a madman could very well see Mansell’s composition condemned as Breivik’s Catcher in the Rye, but for better or worse, its place in history is now assured.

Monday, 20 August 2012

THE BARGAIN BIN B-MOVIE BOOZE REVIEW!





Check out this link to my very first podcast!
I am joined by the irrepressible Neil Young and we watch the naffest DVDs from the Morrisons bargain bin, so you don't have to! Then we let you know how wrecked you need to be to actually enjoy them.
This week: Danny Dyer stars in the parkour action bonanza Freerunner!
A four pint head start is recommended...
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yORH8R_NAMA

Friday, 11 May 2012

THE CABIN IN THE WOODS

Chris Hemsworth (Thor, 2011) heads up the band of teenagers/walking clichés who head off for a weekend of lasciviousness, fornication and generally behaving like morons in the sort of American backwoods deadend dwelling where cellphone signals are just the first thing to croak. The whooping teens check into a creeky hovel, eerily reminiscent of the shack in The Evil Dead (1981), leaving no doubt that things are about to get gorier than a nailbomb in an abattoir.
 So far, so ‘meh,’ but Cabin…, produced by Joss Whedon and directed by Drew Goddard from a script by both, like Wes Craven’s game-changing Scream (1996), cunningly aims to eviscerate the horror genre, slyly mutilating it into horrific new shapes. We’re offered glimpses of white-collar desk-jockeys (Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford) cackling in some mysterious, hidden, hi-tech control booth, gleefully observing events via hidden cameras. As they make wagers and push magic buttons that make girls remove their tops, it becomes apparent that strings are being ingeniously pulled.
  Like Beadle’s About reworked by John Carpenter, this is a fantastically compelling spin on horror standards. Wisecracking Whitford and Jenkins make for curiously amiable puppetmasters, dexterously maneuvering the teens into a bloodcurdling basement full of familiar supernatural MacGuffins (ominous puzzlebox, sinister ancient tome). Before you can squeal “Don’t read the Latin out loud!” all manner of nightmarish creatures are unleashed, obligingly relieving the kids of body parts in some inventively squelchy sequences.
  Whedon and Goddard have a riot, toying with horror conventions, like introducing a dial that prompts the kids to nonsensically split up, and a ‘pheromone mist’ that hilariously compels them to initiate outdoors nookie.
 It is a compelling funhouse ride of a movie, leaving us to ruminate over exactly what is going on, the Buffy creators spoonfeeding us just enough to keep things intriguing.
 A twisty-turny treat, Cabin… is a kick up the backside to a stagnant, predictable genre, though it is so content with being clever, it often forgets to be scary. The ‘jump scares’ lack effectiveness, the foreboding atmosphere heavily diluted by all the sly nods and winks.
  Packed full of idea and invention, this oddity manages to graffiti all over the horror rule book, but still falls victim to many of its stereotypes and failings. With its purposefully cheesy dialogue and cardboard cut-out characterisation, the filmmakers aren’t so much critiquing the genre’s conventions as simply pointing them out. As the puppeteers’ agenda becomes clear, the picture begins to suffocate under the weight of its own spectacular premise, resulting in a frankly bonkers, slightly unsatisfying crescendo that doesn’t entirely make sense.
  Though not as smart as it thinks it is, Cabin... still manages to sink its blood-drenched hooks in deep, making up for its defects with a jaw-dropping, slaughterous final third that audaciously shoehorns in every horror movie staple you can imagine. Whatever Boogeyman hides in your closet, you’ll be sure to find it lurking within The Cabin in the Woods, and though it may not give you nightmares, you certainly won’t forget this creepshow in a hurry.


Thursday, 5 April 2012

IS IT JUST ME…OR DOES THE SEX LIVES OF THE POTATO MEN DESERVE A SECOND CHANCE?


When the chips were down, following last year’s demise of the UK Film Council, the knives came out for one particular hot potato. As the UKFC found itself roasted in the long vowed Tory “bonfire of the quangos,”  its detractors gleefully reminded us that this was the same body that, in 2003, approved nearly one million pounds of national lottery funding to help finance controversial sex comedy The Sex Lives of the Potato Men. Though relatively small-fry in cinematic terms, made on a budget of just three million pounds, the Johnny Vegas vehicle was blithely used to flog the council’s rotting corpse by those who had denounced the film as a squalid, unfunny, vulgar, spectacularly ill-judged, half-baked misfire. Outraged, The Times threw water on the chip pan fire going so far as to dub Potato Men “one of the two most nauseous films ever made.”
  But now the heat has died down and the smoke has cleared, I am compelled to question: is this little film really so rotten, or can we peel back its soily, filthy exterior and discover something wholesome, nutritious and undeniably chipper inside?
  Responding to the picture’s naysayers on release, the UKFC defended Potato Men as ‘not critic-led,’ which is surely plain to see. Nobody could argue that this facetious farce about the sexual shenanigans of four Brummie potato delivery men, portrayed with deliciously deadpan detachment by Vegas, British sitcom stars Mackenzie Crook and Mark Gatiss, and newcomer Dominic Coleman, could ever pass for “high art.” On the contrary, Andy Humphries’ directorial debut is as defiantly low-brow as they come. And where is the harm in that? Metrosexuality be damned, the Potato Men, in their noble quest to empty their sacks of spuds, serve up a delirious, deep-fried celebration of pure, unadulterated, primal, bollock-scratching Male-ness. And besides, it’s hard to care about a flick’s artistic merits when you’re laughing yourself silly.
  Admittedly, the film may not appeal to your nan. Vegas’ newly-single Dave and his cockamamie cronies are unashamedly potty-mouthed, with stud-of-the-gang Ferris (Crook), sagely observing that life is ‘one big fanny-fest.’ But many of their elucidations are astutely hilarious and, I would argue, cast an illuminating spotlight on the concerns and motivations of young, working-class British males. These are sad, lonely men, longing for a better life, but who have spent so long stuck in the doldrums they’ll settle for the quick fix of a boozy, illicit knee-trembler with whoever’s willing. Young, skint, horny, live-for-the-weekend audiences may well find something depressingly relatable in Dave’s impassioned rallying cry: ‘We’re young men! We shouldn’t be here! We should be living our lives to the fullest! We should be…Down the pub!’
  This is a grim, grotty slice of proper half-cut, beer-bellied urban life and though it certainly isn’t for everyone, I challenge young British men to watch without tittering inanely. Certainly, any dignified, beer-swilling lad who has ever found himself embroiled in a pissed-up, passionate pub parlance will recognise the insane genius in Dave and Ferris’ gloriously daft, drunken wasp/bee/honey debate (‘Bees make honey? Since when?’).
  Perhaps the critics just didn’t get it. This is a film made by, and for, blokes who have spent far too long down the boozer. Though having scarcely little to do with the plot, the sight of Dave, completely trollied, holding court on the karaoke machine, enthusiastically murdering Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ Come On Eileen, to a wonderfully indifferent, near-empty pub, must surely stand as a heroic tribute to the defiant spirit of the disenchanted working classes. The sight of Vegas, in ferocious full-flow, almost certainly sloshed-for-real, is sidesplittingly uproarious, but tinged with pathos. His Dave is lovably pathetic, a clueless would-be lothario whose idea of foreplay is asking his lucky lady if he can borrow an Allen key so the bed doesn’t squeak.
  Though Vegas became notorious for his belligerent drunk stage persona, here he furnishes his character with poignant vulnerability. The funnyman is genuinely moving, opening his heart, revealing, ‘I don’t want to sound like a poof…but I used to love talking to my wife.’ Denigrators failed to recognise that Humphries’ film offers an honest, affecting examination of the bruised male psyche with its depiction of destitute men, cast adrift: lost, lonely and gagging for it. For these losers, sex makes life worth living, with gormless Ferris, in a rare moment of clarity, stubbornly declaring, ‘My sex life is all I’ve got!’
 Those who knock the film do it a disservice by disregarding the sublime subtleties of its performances. Though crude, the Potato Men come across as essentially likeable fellas, especially Coleman’s endearingly dim Tolly, a man who pines for his ex-wife so badly, he embarks on a grubby, fetishistic odyssey involving increasingy ridiculous fusions of fish and fruit preserves, because it ‘reminds him of her taste.’ It is a minor miracle that Coleman, with his puppy dog eyes, superbly expressionistic visage and affable demeanour, succeeds in making a character who should, by all rights, be irredeemably creepy, the most appealing of the bunch. Tolly is so pitiful, the premium-rate sex-lines hang up on him, but Coleman’s portrayal is so innocently naïve, we root for him.
  Crook, too, impresses as unlikely, lanky lady-killer Ferris, who sees plenty of amorous action, but consistently ends up in bizarre sexual scenarios. The understated horror channelled by Crook’s haunted glare expertly sums up the grimy awkwardness of his merry, messed-up encounters with role-playing chip-shop girls, sex-mad mother-in-laws and perturbingly prurient pensioners.
 The League of Gentlemen’s Mark Gatiss rounds off the cast’s vintage comedy credentials as mixed-up Jeremy, who believes that kidnapping his ex’s dog is a surefire way to win her back. Gatiss expertly foregrounds bogey-scoffing Jeremy’s complete obliviousness to the eccentricity of his actions, moulding the character into something surprisingly engaging, forlorn and heart-breaking rather than disturbing. 
  These well-crafted performances highlight that, though knocked by many as odious and loathsome, under closer inspection the Potato Men’s exploits are really just harmless, frivolous fun. Like The Inbetweeners if they grew up but didn’t learn a damn thing, the boys are likeable, if dim-witted fools whose libidos steer them into insane, filthy situations that assist them in the arduous process of growing up and moving on.
  One criticism levelled at Potato Men is that it suffers from a weak plot structure and works as little more than a series of loosely connected comedy sketches. In its defence, I would point out that a similar formula did no harm for Will Ferrell’s Anchorman and that complex plotting matters not a jot when those sketches feature a rollicking, gut-busting, opposite-of-sexy ménage a trois, soundtracked by the seductive sounds of Carl Douglas’ Kung Fu Fighting.
 Yes, the picture is satisfyingly smutty, but Humphries should also be applauded for his unflinching, forthright depiction of carnality. Interestingly, there is no nudity, the film leaving some things to the imagination - sure, it’s lewd and crude, but far from gratuitous. The polar opposite of Hollywood’s portrayal of unfeasibly gorgeous people, these are weird, odd-looking misfits who show up sex for what it often is – a bit ugly, disappointing and occasionally hilarious.
 Perhaps the critics found this honest portrayal of sexual politics too much to stomach? Dave and co tell us a lot about a society with no shame and no standards, where the quest for sexual gratification wins out over intimacy. Against this backdrop, the Potato Men make us feel oddly better about ourselves – no matter how low we might feel, at least we’re not dog-napping or blowing our wages on an octopus and a jar of strawberry jam. Don’t ask.
  So do the Potato Men deserve another fair crack of the whip? Definitely. Like the aforementioned Anchorman and The Big Lebowski, another classic comedy unfairly ignored on release, the film is rich with cracking, quotable one-liners that could see cult fandom beckon.  At the offer of a ‘spitroast,’ as a curtain raiser to a long sought-after threesome, Dave heartily replies with the zinger, ‘Yeah, I’ve only had a sandwich for my tea.’ When Ferris lamentably explains the depths he plumbs to secure lodgings, revealing, ‘My mother-in-law gave me a blow-job,’ Dave pauses, considers and retorts, ‘Mine gave me a fishing rod once.’
 If this type of patter tickles you, then it’s time to rally the troops, phone for a pizza and get the beers in. Best served with a couple of pints, this misinterpreted masterpiece is one to be shared and enjoyed with the lads. Like a smutty seaside postcard, you will laugh, maybe even wish you hadn’t, but its rib-tickling effect is one that cannot be denied.
  On release, this very publication denounced Potato Men as ‘a Britcom only a Loaded reader could love.’ But is there any shame in that? The critics seem to have missed the point that this is a film with a very specific target audience, and it’s time it found the love it deserves. Cinema offers a bountiful banquet that caters for all tastes and there’s no reason why this sweet potato can’t provide delicious nourishment for audiences for years to come. Or is it just me?

Monday, 19 March 2012

THE WIND THAT SHAKES THE BARLEY


 It is a bold, intrepid filmmaker who dares to throw open Pandora’s Box and take on a film that deals with The Troubles of Northern Ireland. With The wind That Shakes The Barley, director Ken Loach, no stranger to tackling controversial issues, and long-time screenwriting partner Paul Laverty fearlessly step up to the challenge, unleashing a fiercely political picture that is surely designed to ruffle a few feathers.
This incendiary tale of upheaval and rebellion stars Cillian Murphy as Damien O’Donovan, a Cork man who becomes involved with the Irish Republican Army during the Tan War and subsequent Irish Civil War of the nineteen-twenties.  The young doctor abandons a promising medical career to take up arms against the ruthless Black and Tan squads sent from Britain to block Ireland’s bid for independence, the impact of their deplorable behaviour on his village proving too much for many to tolerate.  Damien’s enervation is shrewdly illustrated as the lively, exuberant camaraderie of the picture’s opening hurling competition is abruptly terminated by the arrival of the tyrannical British soldiers, shrilly barking orders at terrified locals. As the Tans brutalise a young man for refusing to answer in English, the helpless villagers’ awful sense of confusion is palpable, echoing the disorientation that outsiders to the reality of The Troubles will doubtlessly share. A ferociously affecting overture, it plunges us deep into the inescapable reality of a nation in conflict.
  Damien is sworn into the flying column brigade commanded by his brother Teddy (Padraic Delaney), and the struggles of these crusading siblings form the emotional backbone of Loach’s conscientious depiction of the effect this conflict had on small communities. As the signing of the Anglo-Irish Peace Treaty of 1921 splits the nation, with many refusing to pledge allegiance to a British monarchy, Laverty’s screenplay astutely turns brother against brother. Teddy becomes a Free State officer, while Damien pledges allegiance to the anti-treaty IRA, placing the two on an agonising collision course.
  Loach’s film is mercilessly confrontational and unapologetic in its depiction of violence, exploring the lengths men will go to for their beliefs. As Damien ruefully guns down a friend-turned-informant, cascading emotions flicker across his anxious visage. Pulling the trigger with thudding finality, we understand he has come too far to turn back.
  A degrading attack on the community, where Damien’s lover Sinead (Orla Fitzgerald) is beaten, her hair humiliatingly shorn by the Tans, we are forced to watch from the helpless viewpoint of the despairing rebels. Hiding on a hillside, we share in the horror, desperately unable to intervene, a cruel reflection of the realities of war.
  The violence is blunt, bloody, real, with one blood-curling moment seeing Teddy interrogated by aggressive inquisitors who gleefully claw at his fingernails with rusty pliers. As fellow prisoners, roused by his caterwauling defiance, chant Republican anthem ‘The Boys of the Old Brigade’ in solidarity, we are left in doubt as to where Loach’s sympathies lie. For the outwardly socialist director, all occupiers are aggressors, which may prove too troublesome for some viewers to swallow.
  However unpalatable Loach’s version of ‘The Truth’ may be for some, the director’s realist style certainly lends an authoritatively authentic feel to proceedings. There is a refreshing lack of craic, blarney and Guinness-quaffing, while the use of remorselessly dense Cork accents delivered by predominantly untrained, unknown actors brings a sense of truth lacking from so many cinematic depictions of the Emerald Isle.
  Many scenes appear unscripted and improvised, as when union official Dan (Liam Cunningham) stumbles and stutters through an impassioned speech on the implications of the Treaty. Such adroit methods seduce us into viewing history through Republican eyes, the picture’s beautifully realised, convincing period detail successfully immersing us in lives of these complicated souls.
  Our experience is anchored by a commanding, emotional performance from Murphy. His is a face that expertly channels sadness, anger and frustration via the intense hues of his beautiful, yet fatigued, unfeasibly blue eyes. Though Damien’s swift transformation from unsure, mild-mannered doctor to dedicated guerrilla soldier never completely convinces, the Cork native is nevertheless a powerful, arresting presence, fluctuating between calm contemplation and frightening vein-popping intensity. When, with a defiantly aloof swagger, Damien attempts to mask his torment at executing the informant, he is betrayed by the heart-rending, wounded confusion of Murphy’s trembling, cracked intonation, providing one of the film’s most profoundly affecting scenes.
  Unfortunately, though Murphy impresses, the film’s brother versus brother plotline feels contrived, as Loach never bothers to really take us inside Teddy and Damien’s relationship. Similarly, Damien’s romance with Sinead feels like an afterthought, tacked-on almost, as another succinct reminder that the IRA are real people with feelings too.
  Most problematic, however, is the merciless depiction of the Black and Tan troops, to-a-man portrayed as irredeemable savage, sneering bullies who see the natives as subhuman scum. Though historical accounts indicate that the real-life colonial soldiers were far from squeaky-clean, through relentless scenes of forceful intimidation and reprehensible torture, the Tans are very deliberately never afforded a humanity allowed to the Irish characters. The mercenaries are made all too easy to hate, assaulting defenceless women and haphazardly firing bullets at villagers’ houses with a casual air of effrontery. With little insight or explanation into their psyches, Loach is crucially cartoonish in his depiction of the Brits, making this feel, sadly, like complex, historical allegory boiled down to a simplified tale of ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies.’
  Loach plays a dangerous game, not in sketching the Republican Army as sympathetic, living, breathing, vulnerable human beings, but by painting his portrait with such broad brushstrokes of black and white. His film is admirable in its intentions to present a thoughtful, considered view of the IRA, but lamentably, it is a shamelessly unbalanced account. There is much to admire and enjoy, especially in tense, riveting, glimpses of stealthy, guerrilla warfare, but in letting his head rule his heart, the director falls slightly short of the greatness we know he is capable of, evidenced in the hard-hitting triumphs of ‘Sweet Sixteen’ (2002) and ‘Kes’ (1969). Though Loach spins an affecting, gripping tale, the straightforward ‘Truth’ he presents defuses much of the potency of his astute, considered political commentary. War, sadly, does not provide such simple solutions.

Monday, 12 March 2012

THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS


The total magnitude of war is beyond the comprehension of language. Though audiences can never fully grasp the pain, politics and emotions of the French-Algerian war, the Criterion edition of Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 masterpiece is nonetheless a staggering achievement.  Such is its timeless impact, …Algiers was screened at the Pentagon in 2003 as an illustration of burning issues faced in Iraq. It is easy to see why.
  Pontecorvo masterfully shoots on location in a grainy, documentary style, with untrained actors convincingly illustrating the rise of the Algerian guerrilla National Liberation Front and the colonial powers ruthless attempts to crush them. With harrowing scenes of frighteningly realistic violence, the film succinctly documents the period from 1954 to 1957 when the Casbah of Algiers became a bloody theatre of war. Expertly filmed bombings and shootings seem almost too real, with one explosion in a teenager-packed café proving particularly overwhelming.
  Brahim Hagiag exudes moody, urgent intensity as Ali La Pointe, a crook who scales the ranks of the FLN and who serves as the film’s emotional core. If the face is a map of a life, the steely resolve evident in the actor’s eyes, unflinchingly gunning down opponents, convinces us that the freedom fighter will die for freedom.  The excellent Saadi Yasef, a real-life FLN military chief loads further ammunition to the authentic feel, bringing gravitas to a character moulded on his own experiences.
  Pontecorvo’s flair for orchestrating massive crowd scenes, bestows …Algiers with a proper sense of grand scale and significance, a towering example of cinematic realism. The only elements that break the spell are some ropey performances from untrained supporting actors, such as a rebel forced to betray La Pointe, whose glassy stare and uncertain mannerisms prove regrettably distracting.
 It is a minor grumble with a picture, energised by an insistent Ennio Morricone military score, that consistently absorbs and thrills. When the bombs go off it is hard to deny the feeling of history being forged in blood and thunder.
  A barrage of meticulously assembled documentary extras impress, with 1992’s The Dictatorship of Truth and Gillo Pontecorvo’s Return to Algiers offering fascinating insight on the director’s past, politics and views on the conflict’s enduring legacy. Cast and crew reminisce in Marxist Poetry, while Remembering History explores the Algerian experience, through candid, fascinating interviews with surviving FLN members. Etats d’Armes, an excerpt from a 2002 feature on the conflict, offers the French military viewpoint, while Pontecorvo’s fearless methods and his impact on contemporaries like Spike Lee and Oliver Stone is explored in interview featurette Five Directors. Perhaps most fascinating is The Battle of Algiers: A Case Study, a short discussion from 2004 between White House counter-terrorism experts, examing the film’s relevance to contemporary terrorism concerns.
  Theatrical trailers, in-depth production gallery and an educational booklet, featuring historical essays and interviews with key players rounds off a superbly comprehensive package. The beauty of Pontecorvo’s accomplishment, reflected in these extensive supplements, is that he gets inside the minds of both sides, presenting an admirably balanced account of war. Never passing judgement, he poses alarming questions, the answers to which continue to elude us.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

DJANGO


All the coolest movie heroes have legendary theme tunes. From Batman to Bond, the credentials of the slickest cinematic titans are solidified by an awesome musical motif that lets audiences know exactly who the baddest cat in the room is. And from the moment Luis Bacalov’s rousing, grandiose, string-laden score kicks in, heralding the arrival of our rugged, stetson-clad hero, it is clear that Django is The Daddy.
  Franco Nero smoulders as the mysterious stranger, swaggering  through a cold, filthy, unforgiving old west, dragging a coffin and blasting any sucker mad enough to get in his way. His spine-tingling entrance sets the tone for Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 spaghetti western, a confident, stylish explosion of macho energy that invites audiences to bask in its audacious badassery. Nero is magnetic, furnishing the gunslinger with an icy stare and a physical composure befitting a character so tough, he squares up for a scrap with two broken hands.
  Seeking vengeance for his wife’s murder, the bronco unleashes hell in a succession of colossal, overblown rucks.  It is unapologetically berserk stuff, with one exhilaratingly choreographed battle seeing Django exterminate all opponents with some gargantuan ordnance that would have Jesse Ventura in Predator (1987) drooling. Though enjoyably demented, Corbucci plays things poker-faced straight, showcasing a flair for action that includes positioning the audience right in the middle of a blistering barroom brawl.
 Eduardo Fajardo is delicious as cold-hearted, Mexican-massacring baddie Major Jackson, though Loredana Nusciak seems underused as the defiant hooker who could be Django’s salvation, but really, plot and characterisation seem almost inconsequential.  Django’s mission is to entertain and it does this in spades, blasting pretensions to smithereens with a .45 calibre bullet.
  Corbucci delivers delirious, no-nonsense thrills and bestows upon us a double-hard, iconic hero for the ages, with a theme tune so stupendous, you may wonder if Batman secretly wears Django pyjamas. 

THE KING OF COMEDY


Like being forced to listen to an over-friendly weirdo on the bus, there is little more excruciating than an orator cheerily oblivious to his captive audience’s complete indifference.   With The King of Comedy (1983), Martin Scorsese invites us into the living daydreams of one such oddball, pipe-dreaming, mediocre stand-up comic Rupert Pupkin, a man so certain of his right to fame he loses his grip on reality.
  Robert DeNiro is unnerving as the unhinged comedian,stalking his talkshow host idol (jerry Lewis), convinced this will lead to success. Disquietly believable, his relentlessly chirpy Pupkin is a restrained, creepy, but altogether different lunatic to Taxi Driver’s (1976)volatile Travis Bickle. The famous DeNiro scowl is supplanted by constant disarming nods, smiles and winks, the method actor fizzing with nervous energy, his fidgety, constant tie-fixing hinting at a dark chasm of need lurking behind the smirk.
  It is easy to spot ‘the crazies’ on the street by a strange emptiness in their eyes, and DeNiro convinces as a man lost in delusion, inviting sympathies with his friendly, courteous demeanour, that swiftly dissolve to discomfort under his unfaltering, shark-like gaze. An old flame is suckered by tall tales of Pupkin’s famous pals and when the comic slips her an autograph it should be funny, but the deftness of the performance renders the scene harrowing. We are utterly assured of his self-deception – the only one not in on the joke, he is chillingly unpredictable.  With events culminating in a reckless kidnapping, the clown tellingly never stops grinning.
  DeNiro is devastatingly effective because he never allows this mask to slip. Eminently watchable, his conviction totally sells us on a stooge who unswervingly believes he is “The King.” Frighteningly, he wouldn’t seem out of place on America’s Got Talent, a phenomenon that depressingly reminds us that there are many dauntless, desperate Pupkins living among us