Blank City

Jun. 18th, 2010 02:34 pm

I'm a sucker for documentary films that show me an outlet for unadulterated and exuberant passion. In and among the poverty of Seventies and Eighties New York, Celene Danhier's remarkable film Blank City gives us a compelling and well worked out cinematic essay on the politics and artistry of the place and time. Ultimately, it is your basic talking heads documentary, interspersed with footage that redefines cinematic cool. The speakers are far too numerous to list - choice cuts include: Eric Mitchell, John Waters, John Lurie, Amos Poe, Steve Buscemi and Jim Jarmusch - and most of them are fascinating to hear.

The city was in massive debt, and without a government handout, most of the occupants of the Lower East Side were fearful to leave their urban dungeon homes. This melting pot of poor, struggling artists - christened "freaks and crazy people" - lead to a cultural revolution. "An explosive movement - a meeting of minds." A richly cut explosion of iconographic imagery opens the film, and we find it hard to argue with these "Iterian kings"; certainly with the raw, explosive and risk-taking results of their artistry.

These directors shot anywhere, borrowed their friends and jumped into abandoned houses for sets, scavenged for equipment and scrounged materials. Ultimately, their picobudget concerns did not stop them from obtaining the money and equipment - by any and all means necessary. They openly confess to committing "crimes to pay for films - that is what we did." Setting fire to their property and scamming for insurance money was a particularly popular hustle. Amos Poe is first up in the roughly chronological story. His anecdotes about the gestation of first Super8 picture Blank Generation are amusing and very much of the time, describing the editing process in the Maysles' Brothers suite while they were off their tits on amphetamines. Also, breaking and entering was not beyond these grunge poets - James Nares' hilariously high-camp Rome '78 was largely achieved by madmen in bedsheets, crafty camera angles, and sneaking inside buildings which look like architect's wet dreams.

Richly observed urban fairytales like Downtown 81, starring Jean-Michel Basquiat, are equally contemporaneous and take the breath away. Blank City also charts the rise of the musical revolution, and shows how it links with the downtown NY film scene; how filmmakers and musicians kept feeding off one another for their next creation. Almost anyone who was anyone was roped into being a punk rocker, the sound aptly described as "trying to make music as though no-one had ever made it".

Lizzie Borden is another participant who made politically radical films - most potently a strongly left-wing picture featuring the destruction of the World Trade Center, using large minatures and and glitter. Her films included G-Man and the audacious Black Box, sharp satires on the reactions to the threat of terrorism.

Many, many more anecdotes and wild stories await you. (I tried keeping notes, but was swiftly beaten down by the sheer volume.) And yet, Danhier's film feels organic in its construction, leading effortlessly from one story to the next with very little dead-time between them. It is an outstanding achievement - and for those of us not part of the movement, a deliriously fun ride.

Ancient Greeks and modern life meets zombies in a timeywimey action horror. Sounds like a laugh, right? Wrong.

An ancient evil is released (don't ask how - the movie doesn't say), and a handful of survivors must hole up against a gargantuan zombie horde. The streets are deserted, other than the pockets of very fast-on-their-feet zombies. It's like 28 Days Later, but with better gore effects and an even weaker story.
This is almost certainly the goriest film you will see this year. Each of our main characters is introduced by a swift dousing in stage blood - think Noel Edmonds and the gunge tank in slow-motion. Start as you mean to go on, I guess. The messiness doesn't stop at the ceaselessly inventive Savini-shaming effects - the script is shockingly incoherent.

Evil In The Time Of Heroes feels like a manic storyteller who won't shut the hell up when he's whizzing off on a tangent, and knows nothing about storytelling ebbs and flows. Characterisation is minimal, the storytelling rushed and undercooked, dishing out (actual) Deus Ex Machinas - spouting "WTFs" when it should be inspiring "Woah!" There's a couple of good giggles - the before/after shots of a football stadium zombie attack have the rhythm of a well-told joke.

In definitely the coolest cameo of the year, Billy Zane does his best Time Lord meets warrior monk impression - "Like a Jedi? You know, Luke Skywalker". And admittedly, the filmmakers do their best to make him look awesomely cool. His scenes don't make a lick of sense, and often take on the appearance of a really bad LSD trip.

There's a dozen reasonable ideas, none of which are developed into fruition - especially the time-travel stuff. A bit of a waste, really. The script is a collection of a movie-loving fool's mad ravings. The movie is highly competent in the technical aspects, and is well-shot. It falls down towards the end, where shakycam upturned what was left of my stomach.

There's a strange lack of emotion in the affair. No fear, no big laughs, no social satire - if it had held on a couple of months, perhaps the story could have leached some timeliness from the economic situation in Greece's near-bankrupt government. You know, zombies being used for what they usually are - a satirical infection to be purged, preferably with fire.

A wasted chance, but hopefully it'll lead to more interesting and coherent things for all involved.

"We killed every man, we killed every child, we killed every goddamn dog! And we rode all the women, and when they couldn't ride no more, we killed them!"

Set in Glory, Texas and the Mexican border - The Last Rites of Ransom Pride is a rather dull action Western. The story deals with prostitute Juliette Flowers (Lizzie Caplan) and her quest to claim the body of her murdered lover, the titular scoundrel Ransom Pride (Scott Speedman). However, the body is being held by Bruja (Cote de Pablo) a mysterious, disfigured leader of a town in Mexico with an axe to grind against Ransom. So, Flowers proposes a deal - she will bring Ransom's younger living brother, Champ (Jon Foster) and trade him for Ransom. Champ's father, Preacher (Dwight Yoakam) doesn't take this lying down - and sends bounty hunters after them. Each side gathers a somewhat bizarre motley crew, and the movie cues up the gunfights.

It sounds like a reasonably cool springboard for a plot. It could be, in the right hands. The cast of extended cameos are excellent, Kris Kristofferson as chief baddie, Peter Dinklage as a dual-doublebarrel wielding, and somewhat philosophical Dwarf. The cast acquit themselves nicely with the anorexic material, especially Caplan - obvious leading lady material. The characters and the story are thinly sketched, with precious little meat on their bones, the scripting is perfunctory - although it boasts a few nice one-liners and visual gags (3D Porn - What will they think of next...? Oh, wait). It interleaves the quest with a series of black and white flashback scenes, leading to a rather steamy - if lacking in skin - sex scene.

Technically, the film is good, the costume and set designs are sparse but effective - leading to a Deadwood-lite funky feel and a slick, well-realised pulp comic-book style, which is only partially ruined by a barrel of cinematographic and editorial tricks in an attempt to manufacture a raw and edgy energy. It doesn't quite work that way. First up is the strange and brief recaps, where each scene is summarised into a handful of its constituent frames, and blasted back at the audience. It's akin to writing using exclamation points for every sentence. It's tiresome, and not particularly clever.

Many off details - not limited to anachronistic petrol-powered vehicles and a semiautomatic pistol that looks decidedly modern, poorly staged action sequences and messy plotting stack up against the film. The stop-start repetitive road-movie feel and insipid script will likely consign this to the inhospitable direct to video market than as the cult favourite as was doubtlessly intended.


Jun. 18th, 2010 02:28 pm

Outcast is a strange concoction of occult fantasy and social drama - think Ken Loach meets Angel Heart and you're on the right track. An Irish woman, Mary (Kate Dickie) and her teenage son, Fergal (Niall Bruton) move to a lower-class council estate somewhere in "Bonnie Scotland, Lothian" and try to settle down. They are being chased by a pair of hunters, Cathal (James Nesbitt) and Liam (Ciarán McMenamin) - sworn to rid the world of a beast which is following Mary and Fergal. Their next door neighbour Petronella - a Scottish/Romanian girl saddled with a mentally-challenged tank of a brother and an alcoholic mother - catches Fergal off-guard and they start a too-good-to-be-true relationship. In the sidelines, very bad things are happening to innocent people (Doctor Who's current assistant - Karen Gillan turns up as Dead Teenager #1), and pain-in-the-backside social workers.

Performances in Outcast are almost uniformly very strong. The magnificent Kate Dickie is quite simply incapable of giving a bad performance and her Mary is a screen-commanding creation: an intense, stony and full-on sorceress, unrepentantly vicious when her back is in the corner. James Nesbitt as Cathal is a crawling, brutally insane nightmare of a man, both blessed and doubly drunk with booze and supernatural powers, sporting a "shiny new skin". Hanna Stanbridge as Petronella, is less impressive, the various fast and tough choices that she must make within the story are mishandled. It's a fine debut, however, and the camera loves her. The main cast make a marvellous ensemble - every quality performance illuminating a world beyond the one portrayed in the there and then. Sadly, most of the rest of the cast has been drawn from central casting, and let the side down - even if it's just for a few minutes.

Director Colm McCarthy knows his genre - and how to provide a fresh sting in the tale. The script astutely blends Celtic folklore, creepy occult sorcery and strong social drama into a strange, and rather original fusion. All of this clever worldbuilding nonsense is given good shift by the excellent - Sylvain Chomet (The Illusionist) knows how to make Edinburgh look achingly beautiful? McCarthy and his excellent director of photography Darran Tiernan make it look like a great gothic dungeon. Additionally, the sound design is superior and adds immeasurably to the atmosphere.

McCarthy divines his strongest suit in the movie early on, the unrepentant vein of voracious carnality that drives the chased and the hunters. Two of the film's best scenes are quite simply well-edited sequence of bodies. Fergal and Petronella's bodies are cross-cut, dreaming of one another in the dead of night, and in tender solo masturbation. The other is Mary and Cathal locked in a naked psychic conflict - heavy breathing and howling for enraged one-upmanship.

For much of its runtime, Outcast may be the best British horror film since The Descent, and keeps hearts in the right place - our throats. Occasional breaks in its verisimilitude (such as the aforementioned crummy side-cast) and a rather bog-standard monster movie finale keep it from top marks. That being said, it's a wonderful calling card for a feature debut, and I look forward to more in the future.


Jun. 18th, 2010 02:25 pm

Joe McCain (Martin Compston) is a young man in the slump of his life - not educated enough to escape from his rural village in Nowheresville up North, and has found nothing in his life to stir passion, other than girls. A gorgeous hairdresser, Jane (Nicola Burley) catches his eye, as does her collection of Northern Soul badges and records and in a weak attempt to impress her, attempts to bluff his way into the scene. Before long, Soul music becomes his life, with weekly trips to the Wigan Casino to manage. Drugs are a natural extension to this life style.

Compston is an affable, engaging actor, easily the most interesting performance in the movie - mixing swagger and vulnerability well. Initially dancing with the grace of a pig stuck with a cattle-prod, he convinces as a man who's just found his creative outlet. Felicity Jones as Mandy - Joe's art-school wannabe friend - is also impressive, with an affable mix of Zooey Deschanel cuteness and girl-next-door amiability. They are excellent at bouncing off one another.

The rest of the cast are a mixed bag: the record shop owner Dee Dee is a funny caricature of aging hippy and daft businessman. Nicola Burley as Jane is as cool and lifeless as an iceberg, with far less under the surface. The one-note pantomime villainy also disappoints, Joe's wifebeating customer is a sneering nitwit, and the chief preening peacock on the dancefloor has nothing going on, other than being a twat.

Ultimately, SoulBoy is a strange, lifeless work. Its script is crammed with cliche, stock characters, crummy gags and screenwriting formula (one can almost hear Robert McKee bellowing in the background!) to such an extent, not even an excellent lead performance can save it. If you think of the obvious stories of romance, coming of age, overcoming adversity, the usual stuff, and dress it into a script without the wit to back it up - you're on the right track.

It has a good go at getting the period right. The details are there, the costumes are just the right shade of cool and crap: the bright red tank top leading the girls to dub him "a right little Soul Boy" and the startlingly awful suits. The set-design is great, capturing the late 70s Northern Soul movement very well, and the Wigan Casino has been rejuvenated superbly.

The movie is competently made, but the script stifles and sinks the otherwise good work. Billy Elliot on uppers, this ain't.

Fanboys are excellent at bitching about minutae over series they love; you give 'em an inch, they'll run off with a list of gripes as long as your arm. While offering no new discoveries about the man in charge of Star Wars, Alexandre O Philippe's movie is a rather affectionate fanboy love-in and whingefest about the galaxy far, far away and its checkshirted creator.

The People vs George Lucas starts off with a set of hand-drawn and witty animated title cards and a short history of George Lucas: a misfit child, a genius photographer, car-crash victim, through to UCLA graduate. It's an effective distillation of the pre-THX 1138 history, further revealing a filmmaker traumatised by studio interference in his first features THX 1138 and American Graffiti.

Philippe's documentary makes a sincere case for the inspirational qualities of the Star Wars saga; witness a gaggle of creative types gushing over the cultural and inspirational impact - and a huge number of excerpts from trailers, press-kit materials and fan-films of all kinds. Comparisons are made from other great storytellers, including Homer and Shakespeare - and the interviewees raise an apt point, "it's not about the author, but the culture that embraces it!"

Some of the fan works are so good, that I hope the resultant DVD will contain many of them. I can also hope they have Star Wars: Uncut, a collection of 15 second works which attempt to recreate every single scene of Star Wars in any way, shape, media, fashion or form - the clips are very amusing and subversive. Rather than using the movie's footage, Star Wars: Uncut is often substituted for clever and comic impact.

It then takes a sour note, with a chapter entitled "The Great Tinkerer". This deals with the 20th Anniversary re-release and subsequent video releases, where Lucas changed his films to better fit his vision. There is an extensive comparison of visual effects work, and a large amount of discussion of the two scenes that caused the most furore. First up, the Han Solo and Jabba the Hutt CGI scene. Gary Kurtz (producer of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back) gets on the record, describing the scene as "totally unnecessary". Worse than this is the Greedo Shoots First sequence, where the many participants provide their own theories and discuss the folly of the scene's revision. To counterpoint, the movie shows a selection of Star Wars: Uncut edits, including a devious reconstruction using Lucasfilm's adventure computer game system, SCUMM.

The interview subjects pose the copyright question "Does the public have ownership of the materials of its own culture?" Ignoring copyright for a moment, the movie discusses various not-exactly-legal attempts to restore and preserve the original films using high-quality sources - we see a fan fondling his prized 1993 THX-certified LaserDisc boxset. On the other hand, The People versus George Lucas takes time for a tangent showing that Lucas spearheaded a movement against Ted Turner's colourisation of classic black and white features. The distinction is blurry at best.

Philippe draws the pointed contrast between the anti-studio filmmaker, and the shrewd multi-billionaire businessman who now owns his own studio. It also raises a valid point: in that no-one stood up to Lucas post-Empire Strikes Back to point out aspects of the subsequent films that just don't work. What happened between then and now? The People vs George Lucas also makes the case of a fundamental disconnect between George Lucas and the Star Wars fans. A multitude of geek interviews perfectly capture the 1997-2005 zeitgeist and the reaction to the awesome Episode I trailers - something I can truly relate to. And of course, the subsequent crushing disappointment of the prequel trilogy (Jar-Jar Binks snuff movies, and midichlorian nerd rage are a big part) and re-editing efforts to make them more palatable for the fans.

Lucasfilm's merchandising machine is also mercilessly dissected. The nerds are both proud and truly ashamed of their willingness to buy everything that the Empire spawns. "I now feel I'm in therapy talking about this!"

Ultimately, The People vs George Lucas doesn't offer anything truly fresh for Star Wars nerds, but it's amiable enough, and the mostly pre-Youtube fan-film extracts are delightful - and Lucasfilm's subsequent embrace of these fan films, even sponsoring competitions and giving away free materials to start filmmakers off. Lucas' galactic sandbox is remarkable, and the fanboy Rebel Alliance continues unabated.

Just don't mention the hopefully-erased-from-history Star Wars Holiday Special - so toe-curlingly unwatchable it has been dubbed "Mom & Dad's Sex Tape".
Superhero Me immediately makes me think of all those deliciously sad people who wrote Jedi as their religion at the last census. They are such lovely, deluded creatures.

First-time documentary filmmaker Steve Sale decides to become a superhero. His journey begins by recruiting comic-book experts for basic intelligence, for various traits that superheroes must have. In desperation, he even interviews his parents; when asked about superpowers, his dad comes out with "If you call Luck a superpower, I've got that!"

So, to become a superhero, without obvious exceptional gifts, he recruits the help of a personal trainer - starting off with a 'Get Ripped in 8 Weeks' advert, and concluding with a funny Run Fatboy Run meets Team America montage. Also needed are a martial arts guru for dispatching evil swiftly (using Drunken kung-fu, of course), and most importantly of all, the costume.

Sale picks the pseudonym, SOS, based on his skills as a sound editor, ropes a mate for some seriously cool illustrations. We see Sale mooch around and trawling the internet for inspiration. After a lengthy gestation period, he starts making and remaking the costume out of brightly-coloured spandex and other such fun fabrics. One of the movie's best terrible puns happens when he's shopping for y-fronts - "this movie's pants". We also learn that he's considered the bathroom practicalities. What he has failed to consider is his weapons and skills - testing a loud oscillating alarm on his pet dogs, who just sit blithely and wag their tails. Also, transport is somewhat lacking, the first trip on the SOS-mobile is marinated in Fail.

To his surprise, Sale discovers there are many other real life superheroes. The reclusive Captain Ozone, "a time-traveller" who uses a petrol-powered chainsaw to make environmental fossil-fuel conservation points of note. Entomo, who fights  crime on the streets of Naples, opens the doors to many other superheroes. Funniest of all is Angle Grinder-Man, a deliciously anarchic scourge of parking clamps everywhere - he has a hilarious answer phone message.

There's even a musical band of superheroes - Justice Force Five, who inspire SOS to compose a rather catchy theme tune. In between placing adverts in local newsagents and searching for a sidekick, SOS makes a name for himself doing all manner of nice deeds, mowing lawns, charity fund-raisers, impromptu taxi services and chasing shoplifters. Even the sexually starved get a look in, a woman begs for attention with broken English:

"All the boys become gay. Save me!"
"I'm not going to make 'em straight. Look at me!"

Okay, it's funnier in the movie. Things take a darker turn with the story of a Los Angeles vigilante: Master Legend. He seems to breathe the ethos of Superman's origins back in the Great Depression - helping the poor and wretched. Clanking around in a roughly hewn suit of armour, balls to the wind, he fights the causes and effects of local crime. And those who "heal with the faith of the almighty crack-rock."

While occasionally amateurish and sloppy in its staging and interviewing skills, Sale's film also belies a certain engaging roughness - the footage was shot on inexpensive consumer video cameras and videophones, collected and edited on an old computer. Strangely, Superhero Me doesn't feel like "a story that needs to be told by any means necessary", as promised by the opening title cards, and could probably benefit from being about five to ten minutes shorter. Technical issues and filmmaking limitations aside, this movie is good fun, Steve Sale is an engaging and funny host, and doesn't let his movie's technical weakness get in the way of an entertaining time.
Thunder Soul is a sheer delight of a film. It is a sincere love-letter to the dedicated educators and inspirational individuals who can shape so many lives. Expertly made, passionately enthusiastic, it is one of the best films of the year.

It was the early Seventies, and a blazing hot funk band was born. They were the Kashmere Stage Band,  phenomenally talented youngsters, led by Conrad "Prof" Johnson - one of those rare teachers; a startlingly talented composer and a leader who enforced discipline. A 37-year teaching veteran, he guided his pupils to develop their musical talents, and inspired respect and demanded they represent that which is good - becoming a father figure that many of the children lacked. "He didn't just teach us the music; he taught us to be men!" - enthuses one of his many proteges.

The film chronicles a reunion of the original band - with its members spanning across the United States and world. "We doin' it for the Man!" They are an amiable bunch, having become thoughtful, passionate, articulate and interesting people. In archive footage, and in recent interviews, the 94-year old Prof speaks of his life in simple, straight-up language; he describes his starting of a family, his wife - "a momma' to all of us" - and his embrace of the educator role.

The former students invite us to share their reunion, from when they re-enter the building - "It's much smaller than I remember" - culminating through to a reunion concert which blows the roof off. They share rich, hearty food and their life stories with one another, using photographs, artifacts and personal memories. Their warmth and love, their excitement and humanity radiates for all to see, and it is so wonderfully infectious.

"Our parents fought [for the Civil Rights Movement] and it was time for us to shine!"

When speaking of Prof and his wife, their words flood out - easily sharing their pleasure and excitement. "He was like the Pied Piper" - the students success in music spurring the rest of the school to improve themselves, in the arts, sports, debating and grades. This leads to success on a national level, and touring through Europe and even Japan. They ended up recording and distributing a collection of studio and live work, even recently remastering them for CD - getting up to #3 over the weekend of release on Amazon. Not bad for a band who hadn't recorded in over 25 years!

Aided immeasurably with an absolutely cracking background jazz and funk musical score and an innate sense of timing, director Mark Landsman smoothly shows and tells a multitude of stories. Thunder Soul blends fly-on-the-wall footage with talking heads, archive film and eight-track recordings - knitting a great and moving tapestry of love, humour, talent and inspiration. This is the real thing - do not miss it!
Divorced, mild-mannered teacher and wannabe author Lance Clayton (Robin Williams) is saddled with a wretched excuse for a teenage son, Kyle (Daryl Sabara - the sweet, puny kid from the delightful Spy Kids franchise). All his efforts at connecting with Kyle result in frustration and barely contained revulsion.

His non-domestic life is equally in the doldrums: his poetry group is riddled with lazy plagiarist nitwits, a clandestine relationship with Claire (Alexie Gilmore), a frankly bobble-headed narcissist art teacher is flip-flopping between Lance and his fellow English teacher Mike (Henry Simmons). Mike is younger, popular, an alpha-male and has crucially been recently published in the New York Times. The movie takes time to get going - and there's only so much time we can honestly pretend to give a toot about the acid-laced soapy plotting.

"There's no sugarcoating how difficult my son is," complains Lance to the school's headteacher - how true. Sabara's Kyle is a quease-inducing cockroach of a human being: a sexually frustrated virgin, obsessed with masturbation and the most minging kind of internet filth, who spews inarticulate sexist and misanthropic remarks to all who hear. Sabara is likely to emerge with as much an acting career as Jason Biggs (American Pie), for a scene I shall not describe. I hope he was well-paid for this kind of compulsively watchable career suicide.

Equally, there's no sugarcoating how pointed Goldthwaite's poison-tipped satirical arrow is. While shown at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2009, the film has proven deliciously interesting and acute in the wake of Michael Jackson's death and subsequent media absolution and furore.

World's Greatest Dad is a pitch-black satire on our selective memories of death and the deceased. The movie's concept is its reason for being, that and the big broad laughs. After Kyle's sudden death, Lance takes it upon himself to give his son back some dignity and writes a suicide note. This swiftly goes viral and proves a mighty hit with the student body - "the goddamn First Amendment, huh!" - and they celebrate the previously reviled if not ignored boy. Further ghost-written journal entries leaden with lifeless purple prose lay further wrinkles to the dichotomy of Kyle's real and posthumous public face.

There's nothing particularly accomplished outside of the excellent acting (Williams is excellent, as is the aforementioned Sabara) and Goldthwaite's wonderfully evil sense of humour. Witness Lance tearing up in front of a pornographic magazine stand in memory of his accursed little cockstain, and his trepidatious chat with the delighted grief therapist. Also, Goldthwaite cuts his satirical montages on each character's kitchily-reimagined characterisation of Kyle as a master would forge a music video. Ultimately, he gets to have his cake and eat it too - viciously mocking our Kurt Cobain/Holden Caulfield "tragically cut short" hero worship, while appreciating the image-manipulation pack of lies can make people aspire to be better.

World's Greatest Dad is not for everyone, but for those who grasp its merciless acidity, will find much to enjoy. Viewers of Bobcat Goldthwaite's previous one-killer-joke dramedy Sleeping Dogs, and much-admired cult comedy Shakes The Clown will surely appreciate its ironic and frankly demented wavelength.



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