Crank: High Voltage (2009)

April 21, 2009

They say that ignorance is bliss.  I had no idea what Crank: High Voltage was going to be like or else I would never have gone to see it.  To those who say that ignorance is bliss I would say “you couldn’t be more wrong”.  I have made notes on (more or less) 150 movies since I began keeping a record.  Of those I gave 0/10 to a handful- four or five maybe and, indeed, tonight I re-evaluated a couple and revised their score upwards.  It is as if with Crank: High Voltage I discovered an tenth circle in Dante’s Inferno.  Some of the films I saw were just rubbish because they didn’t need to be any good to achieve their commercial aims (Lesbian Vampire Killers, My Bloody Valentine 3D), some were the product of people who had given up caring about film-making (Ashanti), some were puerile, lowest common-denominator rubbish (Borat) and some were mindlessly, ignorantly offensive (Slumdog Millionaire). This is like a compilation of the worst bits of the most craptacular films I have ever seen.  It is artless, witless, joyless, offensive, amateurish, nonsensical, banal, exploitative, nasty, backwards, overbearing, derivative, vulgar and, frankly, shit. Apparently this is a sequel- there were suggestions of a back-story throughout- and I’m perversely curious to know if it can possibly be anything like as appalling (in the truest sense of the word) as this.

This film is not only gob-smackingly bad (there are moments of literally jaw-dropping ineptitude from everyone present) and grotesquely, deliberately offensive (being offensive to everyone doesn’t even it out somehow, it simply multiplies it) it also has the temerity to masquerade as being inventive or cutting-edge by throwing in the kind of visual gimmicks (weird fonts for subtitles etc) that would see an Art School student repeating the year.  It even has a segment ripping off the likes of Aronofsky and Tarantino with Jason Statham’s character as a boy on a Jeremy Kyle-style chat show with Spice Girl (fairly suddenly) turned old woman Geri Halliwell.

The problem with Crank: High Voltage, apart from it’s utter shitness, is that it gives ammunition to the Mary Whitehouse brigade.  How can you argue that censorship is too restrictive and that art must be unrestricted to thrive and challenge and develop when you get the likes of Neveldine and Taylor (the Directors) using the freedoms that have been fought for to let Jason Statham grease the barrel of a shotgun and insert it into a fat bloke’s anus?  Argue that it’s funny and that I’m taking it to seriously if you wish, I’d buy it if that was an isolated incident, but it is simply the prelude to a conveyer belt of similar lowbrow, low-invention cack.

I have no problem with violence or gore or gratuitous sex and nudity or dumb explosions.  I can even live with sexism, racism, homophobia and other offensiveness if (seriously, that is a big if) it is necessary and in context and challenged or used to provoke debate or thoughts in the audience.  Where this lump of bollocks differs is that the violence and gore and gratuitous sex and sexism and racism and homophobia (which is the whole film, by the way) are glorified.  This is a film for fourteen year olds to wank to and aspire to.  This isn’t Nine Songs or Dirty Harry or Super Vixens or Saw, it is a pale imitation of the schlocky bits of them and films like them with all of the intelligence replaced by dumb visuals.

I am disgusted that David Carradine was involved (albeit only momentarily) in this.

I haven’t been able to express in any depth or with any clarity the myriad reasons that this horrible film is an abomination.  Genuinely I think it is a new cultural low-point.  I was taken aback so far by it’s uselessness that I was rendered speechless. -1/10.  Yes, minus one.


Bronson (2009)

March 19, 2009

I just didn’t see the point of this tawdry little film. Presumably the backers saw the figures for Bronson’s autobiography and fancied a slice of the pie. If so, then they must have been a little disappointed to see that the Director spent their money on something which is too arty to be popular and too exploitative to be arty. And the Daily Star-reading demographic will not be happy to see Tom Hardy’s cock flaccidly waving at them from the screen either, not one little bit.

And it’s a real tragedy for Hardy because this was his big break and he gives his performance everything he has. But Bronson is such an irretrievable mess that he must feel like he’s scored the best goal of his career when his side were already 9-0 down and limping towards relegation. His by-turns over-dramatic and bemused performance is excellent and he huffs magnificently too- notwithstanding the fact that he doesn’t age a day between 1974 and the present (as my friend Tony D said, the time-line of the film was almost incomprehensible anyway).

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Yes, it’s a muddled and befuddled mess of a movie- albeit with some nice authentic settings- with no clear vision of what it wants to say. It is a character study that reveals nothing of the character it studies. This is the real achievement of Tom Hardy, he gives a great performance even though the script gives him nothing to work on. In his head Britain’s most violent prisoner is a celebrity; but although infamy and celebrity have become pretty interchangeable terms since the mid-90s and the Loaded-fueled rise of celebrity criminals, this doesn’t explain why he would have spent most of the 70s and 80s carving out the reputation that allowed him to gain a bit of space in the tabloids.  And there’s the rub- this is a film which repeats the same scene over and over.  Bronson either starts a fight or takes someone hostage with no intention beyond committing the act itself, this leads to even harsher incarceration and he has to co-operate (presumably for a period of months maybe years) before he gets the opportunity to do it again and repeat the action.  Well fuck me, that’s interesting isn’t it?

The supporting characters in this film are all caricatures the blinded-by-loyalty Mother, the flamboyantly gay bare-fist fighting promoter, the flamboyantly gay Uncle, the flamboyantly gay art teacher, the ‘Allo ‘Allo comedy Nazi style prison governor, the wimpish prison librarian, brain-dead thuggish prison guards and so on.  It may very well be how Bronson sees the world and this may very well be the point of the film but is that really what’s going on?  Isn’t it just a shorthand means of making Bronson seem understandable, maybe even laudable in comparison?  If you went into the film with the idea that Bronson is some kind of larger-than-life maverick, standing up to the man and refusing to compromise- then you could take that message from it.  But he’s actually pitiful and the Director (Nicolas Winding Refn) steers the audience away from that conclusion by putting that sentiment in the mouth of the least sympathetic character on show and having him deliver it with a weedy sneer.

The comparative exaltation of the lead character is no more sharply demonstrated than during his incarceration at Rampton (a secured institution for the mentally ill).  The inmates are pretty disgracefully exhibited as comedy figures as a means of rationalising Bronson’s attempt to kill the least appealing of them in order to secure his transfer back to prison.  The cinematic portrayal of the mentally ill is a tough balancing act to get right when you try really hard since their behaviours are necessarily incongruous and bizarre, but the fact remains that they are ill.  If you look at the behaviour of, say, Martini or Scanlon in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest it isn’t normal, but it isn’t portrayed as a fucking joke either.  Bronson has a scene where an inmate defecates into his hand and then slowly, for maximum comic effect smears it on his face.  It is designed to raise a repulsed laugh in the audience.  Look at him, he’s crazy, how funny!  Woop woop!  It’s disgusting.  When the inmates are shown enjoying a disco and dancing badly it is designed to make Bronson’s choice of attempted murder appear to be the best course of action.  What the fuck is this?

And that’s the big problem I have with the movie.  It is as badly constructed and misconceived a film as I’ve seen anyway, but it is also morally repellant.  Notwithstanding the great lead performance and some pretty good technical stuff, this is a horrid 0/10.

On 21st April (about a month after I first saw this) I boosted it to 1/10 on the basis of the great lead performance.


The Trip (1967)

March 10, 2009

Not really sure why I hadn’t seen this before.  I went through a phase of really obsessing about the ‘summer of love’.  I was intrigued by psychedelia, acid, free love, Haight-Ashbury and all that shite.  I also used to really love Jack Nicholson- still do to an extent- and so this should have been right up my street.  What I really envied was the feeling that people seemed to have that everything was just about to get a whole lot better- a zeitgeist that probably lasted for a couple of weeks and no more.  Wisdom and experience have taught me how false a dawn it was.  The Paris riots, the Kennedy and King assassinations, Altamont, Kent State  and everything that followed were bad enough, but learning how the Haight became full of broken-minded junkies almost overnight and how the whole thing allowed Nixon to get a stranglehold on America does sour the taste a little.  So there’s baggage accompanying this film.  It isn’t just a Corman exploitation flick (it is that, obviously) but it’s a relic from a shattered dream.  It represents the crushing of hope under the weight of the establishment, the man rules okay!

Excluding the context, how is it as a film?  Well, a failure I guess.  It’s like being at a party where you’re the only person who isn’t drunk.  There’s a lot of fun being had but you aren’t included and watching other people in an altered state isn’t exactly rewarding.  Peter Fonda (who undergoes the titular trip) sees things that scare him or make him feel euphoric or blow his mind, but we just see dwarves or mounted men in soft-focus.  If the aim of the film is to replicate the LSD experience- whether for educational reasons as the introductory titles claim, or to make a quick buck like any other exploitation film- then it fails miserably.  Except in the sense that LSD is a dissociative drug and I was anything but engaged.

What is interesting about The Trip is how it is almost a dry run for Easy Rider, lots of things that work well in that movie (the campfire scene, the counter-culture dialogue, the way the sunlight bleeds into the camera, the different film effects used, Fonda’s dissatisfaction with the career/marriage conformist life and Hopper’s monumental performance) are given a dry run here.  And for that, it is important.  So I forgive it for being a bit crap.  4/10

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Black Samurai (1977)

February 18, 2009

The first film in my Kung Fu extravaganza (Kung Fu Panda) started off with me having low expectations and then tragically built them up only to dash them.  With this film I fet much safer- the title and year of release tells me all I need to know. Blaxploitation, Kung Fu and Jim Kelly.  Oh yes, set your phasers on dumb and enjoy.

Jim is a heavily-afro’d special agent with no respect for authority.  He works for a group called DRAGON, an acronym standing for Defense Reserve Agency Guardian Of Nations- no shit, I’m not making this up!  DRAGON want him to rescue a diplomat’s daughter who has been kidnapped by a Voodoo priest and is being ransomed for a brand new super-weapon “The Freeze Bomb”.  As if that wasn’t enough the Hong Kong-based kidnap victim is this California resident’s girlfriend.  What are the chances of that, eh?

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I’m going to bang on about title sequences again I’m afraid.  I’m usually underwhelmed by them, even in big expensive popcorn movies, but these are great.  They are utterly simple, a set of negative photos of Jim in various action poses set to a standard funky guitar theme, but really pretty effective.  From there it’s straight in on the action with a carful of no-good hoodlums- you can spot them by their greasy hair, moustaches and denim- tracking the kidnap victim.  They take her from her villa by beating up her guards and then, as if that wasn’t bad enough, shooting them anyway- the bursting blood bags under their shirts stick out like overfilled catheter bags, if they’d only turned and faced thirty degrees in a different direction it wouldn’t show but, ah, it’s too late now.

And so Jim- Robert Sand, the Black Samurai- is called in.  His undercover contact Pines keeps giving him tip-offs which lead to dangerous situations, Jim isn’t daft he knows that they’re traps but he isn’t afraid either and goes in anyway.  Variously fighting off shotgun-toting rednecks, weedy hit-men, jungle-dwelling Leopard men (the jungle looks a bit like a Florida garden), a muscular bodyguard who is set up as his black Superman rival, various dwarves, a vulture possessed by a demon (!), some rattlesnakes, several armies of bad Kung Fu dudes all in black and an axe-wielding Warlock he manages to save the day.  What a bloke!

The production values are atrocious- the film is badly lit and filmed with indoor scenes being little more than guesswork, the editing (vital to the success of any Kung Fu film) is crap and with a little care could have rescued the project- do we need to see stuntmen standing waiting for their turn to get kicked in the face or the same kick from different angles during different fights?  Something else that didn’t help, I’m getting hypercritical here but I don’t care when I’m on a roll, is that Jim is dressed in a red boiler suit (can they really have been fashionable) and then a red tracksuit and the ropey DVD transfer makes both a retina-burning pain to endure.  While I’m on costume I learned  from the closing titles that Marilyn Joi’s costume was provided by Marilyn Joi- does that reflect the budgetary constraints they were under?  Perhaps I should reassess the film.  Marilyn Joi, by the way, plays a High Priestess of Voodoo named Synne who tries and fails to seduce Jim despite looking like Diana Ross with a figure.  He’s a one-woman man that guy!

The acting, of course, is dreadful throughout with one exception.  Jim Kelly was a Karate champion turned actor and I actually prefer his acting to his Karate.  Fine fighter he doubtless was but his moves always look a little clunky and unpolished- perhaps that’s a legacy of being a real fighter rather than a movie fighter.  So, I prefer his non-combat scenes.  I mean it’s not good acting, but his performance as a super-cool super-dude is convincing because the hokey dialogue deserves to be read with contempt.  He carries off the suave  badass thing to perfection and always looks the part- even when putting a helmet onto his immaculate afro to infiltrate the enemy hideout with his Thunderball-style jet pack!  Yes, his jet-pack!  And his delivery of the line “whitey faggot” as he grinds his heel into some dude’s balls is magnificent.  So cool is Jim that even the post-mix dubbing of some Muhammad Ali-style dialogue during the (frankly disappointing) final fight with his big black nemesis can’t detract from him.  Somehow he pulls off the shuffle, the “come on sucka! Hit me, is that all you got?” and the pretty boy with the unmarked face through his sheer ballsy chutzpah.  Well, fair fucks to him.

And so, after bigging up Jim and slagging off everything else I’m giving Black Samurai a mighty 2/10.  You ain’t nothin’, you out sucka!

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The Girl on a Motorcycle (1968)

February 13, 2009

This arrival of The Girl on a Motorcycle from LoveFilm couldn’t have been neater.  Consider that it is directed by Jack Cardiff, the genius cinematographer from Black Narcissus, who I have discussed in some depth recently, featuring Marianne Faithful (I’ve already discussed Anita Pallenberg the other infamous Stone-ette this week) and Nouvelle Vague icon Alain Delon ahead of my planned weekend of film Francophilia.  How neat a bundle of coincidences could I want?

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Jack Cardiff directs Alain Delon

Against that backdrop, though, the film could surely only disappoint.  And it sadly does.

Often I will reflect that the more innovative and distinctive a film is, the more likely it is to be referenced, to influence and to be stolen from. And by that process the elements which inspire admiration- perhaps even adoration- come to seem mundane and commonplace. For the film fan trawling through the past, it is hard to fully appreciate the context in which a film was first seen.  Coming just twenty years after the end of the second World War this film features Marianne Faithful passing a soldiers’ graveyard and questioning the validity of the war and the sacrifices made- was this shocking iconoclasm or were many contemporaneous films exploring the same rueful territory?

I mention this because this film features extensive use of acid-coloured solarization, so much so that Jack Cardiff begins to irritate as if he were a child with a toy drumkit.  Of course, the process also allows him to get away with longer and more graphic sequences of Faithful and Delon romping than would probably have been allowed otherwise.  But I couldn’t help thinking to myself “what’s the point of going to all that trouble to show something that the viewer can’t recognise anyway?”.  Whether these ‘groovy’ scenes achieved their aim in the 60s or not, I can’t confirm- but they date the movie badly now and look clumsy and ineffective now.

And The Girl on a Motorcycle is really summed up by that.  It is a film of worthy- though frankly ill-judged- intentions, attempting to record on film the thought and ambitions and streams of consciousness of a girl riding across continental Europe.  Like a rites of passage road movie with one protagonist.  Judged against such ambitious aims, it fails mightily.  In fact, it is of no more merit than any number of cheap 60s exploitation B-movies.  The plotline- the bit that isn’t summed up by the title anyway- is told largely in flashback.  Marianne Faithful’s character Rebecca leaves her staid husband of a couple of weeks, the failing teacher Raymond (Roger Mutton- terrible actor but the wearer of a great quiff!) for Alain Delon’s character Daniel, who she met and commenced an affair with in the run-up to the Wedding.  Daniel is the only character in the piece of any substance whatsoever- maybe because Delon and Powell and Pressburger stalwart Marius Goring in a very minor role are the only actors of any merit on show.  He is callous, manipulative and egotistical; though we discover that this bravado masks the deep pain of heartbreak.

The dialogue- which is mainly concerned with expressing Rebecca’s inner thoughts and feelings- is stilted, obvious and typically vacuous Haight-Ashbury hippy nonsense- “not everyone who is dead has been buried”; “sometimes it’s an instinct to fly. I’m not going to feel guilty”; “Rebellion’s the only thing that keeps you alive”- that kind of bollocks.  And only Delon’s character- somewhat implausibly a university lecturer- has any lines which steer clear of cliché – during a seminar on, believe it or not, the morality of free love he opines “love without love, desire without love…so what is love? … A blanket to cover all the dark emotions- desire, lust, a need to hurt, to be hurt”.  This isn’t to say he escapes the scriptwriter’s clunking prose throughout- his “Your body is like a violin in a velvet case” may well worst first line for any movie character ever.

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It is all so disappointing given the calibre of the people involved.  There are blatant continuity errors, logical gaps (Daniel must be supernatural as he appears in a locked room at one point without any explanation how), wooden performances and lowest-common-denominator innuendo with the motorbike as a big cock.  The Girl on a Motorcycle features a girl on a motorcycle on a low-loader- did no-one think that the lean and steering involved in cornering would make Faithful sat bolt upright as the bike takes a hairpin look pretty bloody stupid?  Oh I despair!  A French film by an English Director shot in Switzerland with the Frenchman Alain Delon as a German and the English Marianne Faithfull as a Swiss.  This is all too much to bear.

I’m not generally in favour of remakes (not least because they keep that goofy slapheaded tit Nic Cage in work) but there is the kernel of a good idea in here being woefully badly executed.  This could have been an exploration of freedom, of the feminist movement, of the futility of free love, of the futility of marriage, of existentialism, of expressionism, of any message the film-maker wants to say.  The premise is a blank canvas.  It could have been an artistic exploration; it could have been a beautifully simple road movie; it could have been any number of worthy and interesting things.  But what it is, I’m afraid, is a fucking mess.  If any film ever required a remake, this is it.

Devoid of subtlety, intrigue, wit or beauty, this is a very poor exploitation film.  The only bit I liked at all was the sequence where Faithfull composed her farewell letters in a café, whilst Jack Cardiff filled the screen with faces of old men. It said nothing of interest, I just thought it looked nice.  Oh, and I also liked the following exchange: “Love is a feeling” “so is toothache”. 2/10


Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965)

January 23, 2009

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What I love about exploitation movies is their sheer economy.  Low budget film-making requires innovation and a clear idea of what film you’re making and for who.  Russ Meyer made ‘Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!’ for boys who want to see action, sex and fast cars- now I’m not strictly part of that demographic, but this movie is so effective in what it does, that even I was hooked.

The ruthless way in which the film shows exactly what is required to pack a punch and no more, it is visceral and energetic.  There are goofs all over the place- licence plates fall off and appear back in place and the state of the actresses clothes varies wildly- and some of the performances are really ropey, but the film also has real strengths.  Tura Satana’s pneumatically chested sociopath is truly iconic, Stuart Lancaster as the old man is lascivious and irredeemable and Lori Williams as Billie- while being by no means consistent- shows moments of real promise.  More importantly Meyer’s slick editing and Jack Moran’s high-camp dialogue are memorable indeed.  So, great title, great script, great direction and a great title song.  Superb.

I often remark that a film can only be judged by how well a film achieves its own aims, on that basis it gets a full 10/10.  I don’t like this being ranked above something like ‘Aguirre’, though, so I’ll bend my own rules- 9/10.


Lady Cocoa (1975)

December 24, 2008

If you buy a ‘blaxploitation’ movie you’ve never heard of from Poundland, then you’ve no right to expect Citizen Kane.  And I didn’t.  Even so my already low expectations took a nosedive when the DVD began- I was watching a transfer from a poor quality VHS recording.  Perhaps even from a Betamax, who knows?  But, in a way, that crappiness was great.  As a young teen, my movie viewing was almost entirely restricted to well-worn videos from the local rental store and this was like a trip back in time.  Yes, I watched shite then too.

Lola Falana (Lady Cocoa) is a prisoner who has served eighteen months for contempt of court and, in return for turning state’s evidence against her boyfriend (who is hoping to move into Las Vegas as a racketeer) she is granted 24 hours leave from her inexplicably decorated prison cell under police protection.  In truth, I would have been unhappy with the protection offered as they are followed from the prison car-park along miles of deserted roads by two thugs in a pimpmobile and neither cop notices- this plot has more holes than a tennis racket.  Lady Cocoa isn’t fussed, though, she’s more interested in the standards of artwork that the hotel have to offer (she’s cultured, you see- she also quotes philosophy.  And Janis Joplin) and ordering a series of meals that she never eats.  During her 24 hours leave she is supposed to stay in a hotel room with her escorts but, while the senior officer is out of the room for no discernable reason, she persuades the rookie to take her down to the dress shop in the hotel foyer.

I’m going to digress for a moment and talk about the rookie.  He’s a Carl Weathers-type good looking black guy and is obviously the love interest.  His character is fascinating- he is a beat patrol officer selected for his first plain-clothes job over many better-qualified men because he “knows how to take orders”.  This is one of four things that we know about him.  The others are that he carries a ‘rattlesnake skin-handled pistol’ even though it is against regulations, that he was due to have an emergency amputation on a gangrenous leg in Vietnam but threatened to kill the surgeon who then changed his mind (fortuitously so, as there is no hint of a limp during the course of the movie) and, finally, that the lump of wood playing him shows less emotion than Bruce Lee’s digitally superimposed photograph in that scene in Game of Death.

Okay, so where was I?  Well Lola Falana- who is by miles the best thing in the movie and gives some pretty rancid dialogue far more credit than it deserves- has persuaded the cop to take her to the foyer.  The condition of her temporary pass is that they give her whatever she wants- so long as it doesn’t include leaving the hotel room- and so she demands all of the money her remaining escort has (this is his own money, by the way) to spend on clothes.  So, he hands it over.  It’s twenty dollars.  As this isn’t enough he agrees that they go and gamble it at the (curiously empty) blackjack table.  She places all of the cash on the first hand.

This happens 32 minutes into a 1 hour 40 minute movie.  And at this point, the DVD gave up altogether- in both of the machines I tried.  I can only surmise that the disc refused to go any further in protest at how craptacular the movie was.  Good decision.  1/10 – that point was for Lola Falana.  She deserved better.

And is this the only blaxploitation film ever where even the soundtrack (which they forgot to add to a couple of scenes) really sucked?  Lalo Schifrin’s ‘Dirty Harry’ intro would turn in its grave if it heard the wahwah-ed up imitation used intermittently here.