Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Roller Boogie (1979)

6.5 out of 10
If there was ever a film that captured the ephemeral essence of youth cults, then surely Quadrophenia was it. When Jimmy, a young Mod played by Phil Daniels in this Who inspired classic, returns from Brighton, he finds that he is unable to settle. After all, while he was at the coast, he found himself caught up in an heady mix of drugs, alcohol and random violence as Mods and Rockers went toe-to-toe along the seafront. He even, in the excitement of the the moment, found himself in a deserted alleyway alone with Steph, a pretty modette played by a pre-pout Leslie Ash. There, against a wall, the couple managed to have a bit of a fumbly knee-trembler before rejoining the parka wearing throng. To Jimmy, you see, all this meant something. Possibly, to him, it was something profound; something special. But, as the dust settles, everyone, except Jimmy, returns to their normal, everyday life. You see, Jimmy is not satisfied. He wishes to experience more and to continue feeling the high. So, he returns to Brighton. But this time the Mods and Rockers have moved on, and Brighton is silent. The place simply feels different. The beaches and cafes now stand deserted. The summer has ended. That is how it tends to be with youth cults and scenes. They will happily tick along, underground, for quite some time. However, as soon as mass appeal is realised, the seed of destruction is sewn. You see, if the attraction exists in the fact that the cult exists away from the mainstream then, once everyone is doing it, the whole scene, in a mass of internal contradictions, crumbles, like woodwormed Jenga, into a cloud of dust. In the end, fashions break, like waves upon a rocky shoreline. It is just that some, like Jimmy, find themselves caught within the rock pools of life. But, the cool kids are moving on with the tide. It is pretty much the same story with Mark L. Lester's Roller Boogie. This, too, is a film about a youth cult. But, in this case, the kids are not defined by sharp suits, parkas, scooters or the sounds of soul and rhythm and blues. Instead, they wear silky short-shorts, rainbow coloured braces, they ride around on rollerskates and they play funk and disco. Here, the skaters rule the boardwalk of Venice Beach. It is the age of the skater. It is the time of the Roller Boogie! What this film captures, in essence, is that point at which the wave is about to break. The scene is has already reached its zenith and everyone, it seems, is a dancing skater in short-shorts. Even the comedy character Complete Control Conway, the wobbly awkward kid who's role is to provoke some comic relief, is now part of the scene. It is 1979, and while every season must ultimately give way to the new, for now it is one long Endless Summer party of sun, skating and the boogie. It is at this point that we meet Terry Barkley. She is played by pretty former Exorcist star Linda Blair, who, fair play, seems to do a lot of her own skating in this. Terry is a rich kid and is about to embark on her studies at the exclusive Juilliard School, New York. But, for now, she simply wants to boogie. On wheels! So, she becomes involved in the whole roller scene at the beach and, for her, the most important thing in the world is to win the big contest at the rink. To achieve her goal she enlists the help of a young, talented skater named Bobby James. He is played by real-life, multi-award winning competitive skater Jim Bray. The pair fall in love. The story is then given a largely unneccessary layer of dramatic tension with the addition of some evil developers who wish to close the roller disco. The kids, blissfully unware of the fact that the wheels will be soon coming off their silly fad scene anyhow, set out to stop them. Of course it is tempting to see the film as yet another forbidden-love across the class divide type story. Or even, more cynically, a story of poverty tourism romance such as that described in Pulp's 1995 hit, Common People. But the film is not simply about this. It is not so much about who Terry loves, but why. It is about her being herself and setting her own goals in life. After all, Terry defies the wishes of her posh parents in order to hang out at the beach. You see, while she has fun, Terry is challenging the educational route to a career that her conservative father, played by Count Yorga's Roger Perry, and her mother, played by Swamp Women star Beverley Garland, have planned out for her. However, their girl is becoming a woman and she has her own ideas about what it is she wishes to do. She is making her own choices. Sure, when the sun inevitably sets on the final day of the Venice summer, she will have to do what is right. Terry will, ultimately, have to conform. No matter who she loves today, this is fleeting, and she knows it. Her squeeze Bobby, on the other hand, just like Jimmy in Quadrophenia, is probably destined to be caught in one of life's rock pools. You see, he is from the "other side of the tracks". Even though he, too, is clearly ambitious, there is a sense that he is staying put while Terry is going on to bigger things. For all the intricacies of the story, this is a silly and fun little film that is all about the skating. It is, after all, a movie that attempts, just like Saturday Night Fever or the much later Heavenly Bodies, to cash in on the latest thing and, in doing so, tries its best to capture the all the excitement of rollerskating round and round in circles to cheesy disco music. In doing this, the film succeeds. For, despite all the neon, the garish fashion and some extremely hokey set pieces, this is a film that features some great dancing on wheels that is executed by some genuinely talented skaters. It is just a shame that this is placed in the context of such a generic and by-numbers story. A few years later, incidentally, the plot of Roller Boogie would be recycled, pretty much wholesale, for Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo. There we meet another rich girl who is about to go to college. However, this time, she wants to hang out with the breakdancers of Venice Beach. This is against the wishes of her parents. Meanwhile evil developers wish to close down the place where they hang out etc, etc..

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Wizard, The (1989)

5.0 out of 10
The early eighties was, pretty much, the Golden Age of 8 bit gaming. And, since no one else was doing it, Walter Day decided, in the spirit of the homesteaders, to stake his claim. In order to do this, he founded Twin Galaxies with the purpose of recording and collating the arcade machine high scores from across the country. This enabled him to establish the Twin Galaxies National Scoreboard, which launched in 1982. Around this time Life Magazine would take an interest in this and would pull together some of the greatest arcade game players of the day for a photo-shoot. The resulting spread would, incidentally, inspire Lincoln Ruchti to direct Chasing Ghosts: Beyond the Arcade. Looking at that Life photograph today, it is striking how ordinary looking, or even painfully nerdy, this band of extraordinary young men looked. There should be no way on earth that they, collectively, could be considered the epitome of cool. It would be impossible, for example, to imagine these geeky “Bash Street Kids” hitching across America and getting into exciting scrapes involving bikers, truckers and a private investigator. No! To cover this sort of ground, the 1989 video game themed film The Wizard would have to be at least 20% cooler than that! Especially when it has something to sell. You see, what The Wizard is all about is product. Just as Mac and Me shoved burgers, fries and cola down our throats, so The Wizard also wants to sell us some things. These are, in no particular order, Nintendo Entertainment Systems, Super Mario Bros. 3, who's release was supposed to coincide with that of the film, Universal Studio tours and the American dream. It tries to do this, so it seems, by harnessing the magic of "pester" power. Because there is no doubt at the junior demographic this film is targetting. It is, pure and simple, a kids film. Just like My Side of the Mountain or The Prince of Central Park it sets out to appeal to the adventurous spirit of youngsters like some precocious child of Times Square. Albeit with a rationale that equates such pioneering with shopping. Of course the film needs a story in order to, at least, pretend that it is not some overblown commercial. So what better way to get a story than borrow one from somewhere else. Indeed, this is precisely what The Wizard does. It borrows its story! Possibly the most obvious influence would be The Who's Tommy with its Pinball Wizard, but beyond that there are elements of the Karate Kid. Indeed, much of the film is the Karate Kid with console gameplay replacing karate and game telephone support operatives replacing the whole Mr. Miyagi inspired paint the fence and wax on wax off training element. The Wizard even has its very own "William Zabka" in the shape of baddie nemesis Lucas who utters badass shit like "I love the Power Glove. It's so bad". There are also bits of The Hustler in there somewhere, some Wizard of Oz, a little bit of Vanishing Point and, surprisingly, Rain Man too. The structure of the film, though, is that of a typical road movie. As a result, watching the film, it is easy to feel that it has all been done before, and that is because it has been! It all feels so familiar. To be honest, it would probably not come as a real shock if it emerged that most viewers managed to figure out much of the story arc well within the first half hour or so. It really is that predictable. The star of the film is young Luke Edwards. He plays Jimmy. Jimmy is a young boy with unspecified emotional problems. When Jimmy is stressed he builds things from blocks and he is forever running away from home. Unable to cope, his mother places him in a care home where stark grey walls and funless rooms warehouse children who are sat in front of television sets all day. Luckily, brother Corey, played by Fred Savage, springs Jimmy, and the pair go on the road from Utah to California. Along the way they meet Haley, played by Jenny Lewis, and she too joins the young men as they go westwards with thoughts of growing up with the country. On their travels, as the result of a fortuous pause for breath at a roadside store, they discover that Jimmy has an exceptional talent for playing Nintendo Entertainment System branded games. Which is just as well, as they seems to be everywhere in this. The film then acquires a purpose when the trio decide to enter Jimmy into Video Armageddon, a national Nintendo Entertainment System themed championship hosted at Universal Studios Theme Park. Of course every Wizard of Oz needs its wicked witch and this one, instead, takes the standard libertarian line of casting the state and its agents as villains. For, even though it is not explicitly laid out that the child catcher is, in fact, a state employee, it is worth noting that his role is one of returning Jimmy to the grey, stark, uninviting social care home. He is the joyless face of authority in all this. Played by Will Seltzer, he is, in effect, the police by proxy. He is the anti-fun. It is his role to stop the kids getting to their destination where they can play some Nintendo Entertainment System games. Also, on the tail of the kids are Christian Slater and Beau Bridges. Their role in this, as brother and father, respectively, can be summed up as providing a nememsis for the child catcher, playing some Nintendo Entertainment System games, talking about playing some Nintendo Entertainment System games and lending some heavyweight names to the poster. Neither role is really necessary to the story, however, and both overact somewhat. Sadly, despite being mostly harmless, The Wizard is likely to be a film of limited appeal today. That said, though, it would probably play well to the nostalgia market and fans of retro gaming on a certain console. After all, few kids today are likely to be enamoured by a film about something as crude as blocky old 16-bit video games. Beyond this, there is really little here to entertain a wider adult audience as the film seems to eschew those knowing, adult-friendly, obscure references that Pixar, and so on, throw into the mix for mum and dad. Sega fans would certainly need to look elsewhere.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Showgirls (1995)

7.0 out of 10
During the late eighties, and early nineties, Paul Verhoeven could do wrong. None whatsoever! While his cult status had long been established with the likes of Soldier of Orange and Flesh+Blood, both starring the wonderful Rutger Hauer, he absolutely exploded onto the international stage with RoboCop and Total Recall. These were easily two of the great era defining science fiction films and the follow up of the smash erotic thriller Basic Instinct would surely cement Verhoeven's reputation as the director with the Midas touch. Then came Showgirls and, erm, the critics hated it. So much so, in fact, that the film would be nominated for a whole bunch of Golden Raspberry Awards. These are, of course, the awards for the worst pictures of the year and Showgirls swept the board. Showgirls would even earn a special award as Worst Picture of the Decade! Interestingly, though, director  Paul Verhoeven took all this in his stride and would even turn up in person to collect his awards. He was, apparently, the first director to do so. The result was that Showgirls only had a limited success at the box office. It is telling that this, the least “genre” of his American films, happens to be the one that has the most opprobrium heaped upon it. This something that even Verhoeven would later acknowledge and stated that, with hindsight, he should have maybe made the film into more of a crime film. Showgirls would, nevertheless, fare much better in the home video market. There, it managed to make over 100 million dollars. It even began to take on something of a cult status. So there was certainly a disconnect between the impression of the critics and that of the public at large. But, on this, the people are right and the critics who panned this film are so way off the mark. Because, despite all the crap heaped upon it, Showgirls is actually a great film. However, anyone hoping to see a warts and all exposé of Vegas life would likely come away from this disappointed. After all, this is not what the film trades in. Sure we meet the struggling artist who has ideas for his own production, the small time lapdance club owner and even the woman who fixes the costumes. But, lip service is only paid, in passing, to the nature of the lap dancing business and the world of gambling, the whole Vegas raison d'être, only appears briefly with a few seconds at the slot machines. Instead, the film concerns itself with one woman's pursuit of a career in Vegas. Nomi, played by Elizabeth Berkley, is an ambitious former hooker who seeks to be a lead dancer in a topless stage show in what is, in effect, a retelling of All About Eve. It is a tale of blind ambition and ruthless determination in what is something a glitzy, but somewhat amoral, environment. The medium, which is dance, and the location itself, all are secondary considerations. The film does not really comment on Vegas itself, nor really cast judgement on the world of adult entertainment. No, it simply remains concerned with how, when unchecked, raw ambition can be so destructive and ultimately lead to an unfulfilling emptiness at the top. To underscore this point, Verhoeven keeps the focus very much on one character throughout. A cacophony of amoral supporting characters such as producers, rivals, and so on, surround her and are constantly circling like sharks, but, nevertheless, Nomi ploughs onwards. She is doing exactly what it is she has to do in order to get where it is she feels she needs to be. Even those who, from the outset, help her along the way are ultimately reduced to becoming as much spectators as the sea of onlookers among the waiting flashbulbs or even the paying audience. The camera simply continues to remain on our star. Everything in Showgirls places Nomi at the centre of its universe. The quest for fame, here, is portrayed as existing in a dizzying alternative reality. Visually, this is consistently shiny, garish and never for a second really steps outside this character. Here the bright lights of the stage merge with those of the Las Vegas Strip to create what could best be seen as a form of hyper-reality. Just like Total Recall, Showgirls exists in a sort of semi-fantasy world that is conjured up in the imagination of the main protagonist and realised with lush Jost Vacano cinematography. Casino interiors are almost totally absent throughout this world, for example, and we are only concerned here with their dazzling façades. The bright lights are the bright lights of show business and it is the draw of the spotlight that falls upon the lead dancer that dazzles Nomi first and foremost. Nomi, resembling a tiny topless dancer cast amongst a box of pretty illuminated Christmas decorations, seeks the affirmation that comes from basking in the glow of stage lighting and feeding upon the very gaze of the awestruck. Unfortunately, where the film leaves a little to be desired, is when it comes to filling out the backstory of our lead. At the beginning, for example, we are informed that she wishes to be a dancer. And, as she desires, she manages to become a successful a dancer. We are also informed, during the film, that she isn't quite who she claims to be, with her real identity teasingly revealed early on in what appears, initially, to be a throwaway remark. Yet, the connection between the two things isn't really made. So we simply have little idea, really, of what it is that makes her tick. It does seem evident, though, that there is very little time for love in Nomi's world. Even those who she chooses to sleep with are the ideal helping hands that will guide her up the rungs of the ladder. Is this, in short, simply the tale of unsentimental sociopath? It may well be! After all, it is occasionally suggested. In one scene, for example, when an acquaintence, and one time suitor, tells her that he is to be married and work in a shop her expression, in response, seems to convey something between confusion and disgust. It seems that she is unable to comprehend those who simply wish to get by. Why does Nomi want to be in the limelight? What drives her? We know that she is ambitious, after all. But, why topless dancing? Why is she so driven that she will do anything to be the lead dancer in the Vegas equivalent of the Raymond Revue Bar? After all, Nomi is clearly very talented and there are surely better paid dancing jobs for one with her commitment. Whatever her motivation, she is even prepared to be incredibly ruthless to the point of seriously injuring a rival along the way, suggesting this is no passing whim. The answers to these questions, unfortunately, are not really forthcoming. So, even by the conclusion we do not, in truth, really understand Nomi. Nor why she does what she does.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Two Moon Junction (1988)

3.5 out of 10
Fans of the exploitation cinema of the seventies will, no doubt, know of the name Zalman King. He starred, of course, in the brilliant, and frankly barking mad, Blue Sunshine. His performance as Al, the wrap-around sunglasses wearing rapist biker who terrorises a bus full of schoolgirls in the delightfully over-the-top Trip With The Teacher, is a masterclass in mesmerising, scenery chewing, excess. But, for many more, King is possibly better known as the producer, and director, of highly polished, stylised, erotica of the sort that would come to the fore during the eighties and nineties. Indeed, he would act as an executive producer on the David Duchovny presented, long-running, saucy television series, The Red Shoe Diaries. In fact, in 1986, Zalman would even produce 9½ Weeks! Starring Kim Basinger and Mickey Rourke, 9½ Weeks could be considered to be the daddy of the whole intensely sexed-up yuppie genre. However, his first foray into this sort of film, as a director, would not come until a couple of years later. He made his directorial début, in 1988, with Two Moon Junction. In this story April, played by Sherilyn Fenn, is a posh graduate who finds that she already has her life mapped out for her. Her family, who apparently descended from a band of pirates who would go on to become pro-slavery plantation owners, have decided that their little girl should marry into another wealthy Southern family. Indeed, her would-be husband even has a home and lifestyle planned for them both. So, it seems, the power-dressing April is not in control of her own destiny. This seems to trouble her greatly as April would like to be frivolous and fun, whereas her fiancé is stuffy, conventional and career oriented. As with the likes of Lucinda Dickey in Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo or Linda Blair in Roller Boogie, April is not prepared to settle for the roles others define for her. Like some Pretty in Pink, except in reverse, she intends to engage in a bit of George Orwell style poverty-tourism and have some fun. As luck would have it, she manages get the attention of a pushy fairground worker, Perry, who is played by Richard Tyson. His sexual confidence and unwillingness to take the absence of consent for an answer seems to be the thing that really floats her boat. You see, despite the fact that her aunt, who is played by One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest Louis “Nurse Ratched” Fletcher, has promised her a house and a whole bunch of other stuff that she can have when she gets married, April is simply not turned on by her would-be husband. So, despite the fact that Tyson's Perry character is as oppresssive as her existing social environment, and he has all the monotone charisma of Trash in Bronx Warriors, his persistence pays off. April falls for his annoying homespun worldly wisdom even though it largely consists of him observing that she has no knickers on or informing her that he can tell by looking in her eye that she is gagging for it and other such creepiness. Of course it may be that the attraction lies in a sensitive side that Perry possesses and April, alone, is aware of. After all, while this touchy-feeliness is largely unspoken, it is eluded to as he parades about with his prop puppy. Anyhow, as a result of a chance encounter followed by some casual stalking, the pair begin a series of “sexy” encounters that are almost universally conducted in soft focus, while the Notebook-like will-she-won't-she that passes for a plot is played out in a perpetual fog. You see, in this film, much of the nocturnal exterior location work and even a series of spotlit interiors get a fair bit of the misty treatment courtesy of the old dry ice machine. In fact the backlit fog reaches its zenith as the feature, barely, resists the temptation to show clowns laughing into a fish-eye lens when depicting Perry's proletarian background as a travelling fairground employee. Indeed, the film goes further in order to drive home the point as the lighting gets more hyperactive, the laughter more manic and the score takes on an increasingly discordant rock tone. Here, in a slice of Violation of the Bitch style travelling folk "othering", the fairground seems to be depicted as a journey into Hades goes Beyond The Thunderdome, with a touch of Vampire Circus and Hervé Villechaize, the little bloke from Fantasy Island, thrown in for good measure. Perry's colleagues, here, are depicted as spending their time engaged in the traditional working class hobbies of getting drunk and gambling while he himself enjoys a lapdance from an inane gum chewing chatterbox. Class, after all is an essential theme of Two Moon Junction. Though the story really has, at its heart, a single preoccupation, and that is power. But, it is a power that is manifest in a number of particular ways. First and foremost power, here, is expressed as sexual prowess as a validation of a working class alpha male. But, secondly, it is also about the sort power that is derived from class, wealth and social status. Dramatic tension is derived from the antagonism that stems from these two poles. April is torn, so to speak, between her inheritance and Perry's knob. But, despite all this nonsense, it is supposed to be about the sexiness and, for a film that has made its reputation on its steamy side, it is, surprisingly, incredibly restrained. Indeed, fans of European cult erotica who, no doubt, would be more familiar with the likes of Joe D'amato, Jess Franco or Radley Metzger, would probably wonder what the hell all the fuss is about. Sure, there is a brief two seconds of full frontal nudity but, mostly, sexual encounters consist of a few seconds of clinching, arched backs, nibbles and licking of lips as the saxophone, bass and synth move a notch towards uptempo in order to remind us of how intense all this bodice ripping is supposed to be. In truth, though, the film is largely a nudity free zone with the exception of a few extremely quick flashes and one brief scene where April drops her dress, in a weird tonal shift, after telling a sad story about a suicide at Two Moon Junction. Screamin' Jay Hawkins, who's bizarre cameo consists of a scream in order to denote the excitement of a wedding reception, has more screen time than all the dangly bits and bobs in the film. Nevertheless, all those people who's overenthusiasm contributed to the tracking issues that seem to crop up for about 3 or 4 seconds on every ex-rental tape of Basic Instinct in the world will probably think that Two Moon Junction is the dogs bollocks. They would be half right!

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Fly Me (1973)

4.5 out of 10
From the machete maidens of the seventies, to the Italian Rambo clones of the mid to late eighties, there has been fine, if disreputable, tradition of exploitation cinema coming out of the Philippines. While it is true that the country would play to host to the production of no less than Apocalypse Now, it would become, in the minds of those who would frequent the more cult oriented cinemas, associated with jungle action, women in prison, kickass blaxploitation and so on and so forth. Throughout the seventies, viewers with a penchant for the Philippines on film would be treated to such gems as Jack Hill's The Big Doll House and The Big Bird Cage, Gerry de Leon's Women in Cages, Eddie Romero's Black Mama White Mama and Joe Viola's The Hot Box. During this second decade of the Marcos dictatorship familiar American B-movie regulars such as Sid Haig, foxy Pam Grier and Margaret Markov would rub shoulders with such local talent as the perenial cult Filipino favourite character actor, Vic Diaz. The result would be films that would not only take advantage of the abundance of exotic locales to act as a seriously cool backdrop, but also offer such brillance as numerous prison catfights, chicks doing kung fu high kicks and bikini clad girls-with-guns style guerrila warfare. Within this cinematic milieu worked Cirio H. Santiago. Born in Manila, Philippines, during the 1930s, it would not be until the seventies, already two decades into his film career, that he would begin working in English. But, when he finally did, he showed, from the outset, that he had an extremely clear understanding of just what would play well in North American and European cinemas by helming the likes of Savage, in '73, the blaxploitation classic TNT Jackson in '74 and Ebony, Ivory and Jade in '76. However, the film that kickstarted this rather productive period of exploitation film for Santiago would be Fly Me. It would be this one that would really set the template for a lot that would follow. Fly Me opens at an airport where we meet our stars. They are three air hostesses played by Lenore Kasdorf, Lyllah Torena and Santiago regular Pat Anderson. They are about to embark on a flight to Hong Kong. With this prelude the film lays its cards on the table. It is letting the viewer know that this a film that intends, much like the later Emmanuelle, to play on the desire to travel and the lure of the exotic. It is the siren call to the would-be jet set in a period when international travel would be beyond the scope of the targetted blue-collar audience that may have caught Fly Me in one of the countless sticky floored, urban fleapits that could be found right across the world at the time. Indeed, this is underscored throughout by that the fact that much of the film is padded with extended street scenes and other travelogue-esque location work. The results look like a teaser for a holiday prize in the sort of seventies gameshow that would also give away hostess trollies and fondue sets to the "lucky" aspirational working class contestants. Just to really hit home the lifestyle aspect of this, scenes in restaurants are accompanyed by a generic lounge lizard, acid jazz score and there is a Justerini & Brooks infused ambience throughout the film. It appears, early on in the movie, that we are going to be, hopefully, treated to a lighthearted romp along the lines of Tigon's excellent Au Pair Girls. However, the cheery pre-credit sequence is deceptive. This is just as well as, sadly, the comedic writing from Miller Drake, a name more commonly associated with special effects, is not the sharpest. Sure, some humourous mileage is squeezed from an overbearing Italian mother who is played by Doris Day Show  regular Naomi Stevens. Her attempts at breaking up her daughter's trysts, and in doing so preserving her virginity, are definitely played for laughs. But but it is all far too flimsy to really be considered comedy as such. What this saucy lightness does succeed in doing, however, is to play to a stereotypical view of air hostesses as breezy, bubbly, pneumatic, nyphomaniac airheads. A point underscored when flesh is bared for a brief "Mile High Club" segment. This is intentional, of course. After all, it is this perception of the air hostess, as little more than the ditzy object of male sexual fantasy, that the film sets itself up to challenge. This becomes especially evident where our heroines are placed in peril. Russ Meyer attempts to do something very similar with the opening to Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! He begins by showing his leading ladies as archetypal objects of desire who's purpose is to perform at the whim of paying men. He then turns this on its head. In the case of Fly Me however, this approach is, of course, all a little disingenuous. After all, the outcome of decostructing the submissive hostess, here, is little more than a ruse with the aim of supplanting one fantasy figure with another. These are, after all, strong sexy female character who are designed, first and foremost, to do no more than titilate. You see, Fly Me is not attempting to elevate the female leads to the role of feminist icons but, instead, by creating an action film make it, at the same time, a sexy fantasy film for blokes. So what begins as a fluffy comedy turns into a kick-ass action chick feature. We are also treated to a hotchpotch of a story about drug trafficing and sex slavery with inexplicable and jarringly random snippets of chop-socky action that is occasionally interspersed with yet another comedy led segment. The result is, on the whole, a bit messy and episodic. Imagine what would happen if three or four different movies, all featuring the same cast, were to fall into a paper shredding machine. That is Fly Me. It is unlikely that this would have bothered the director too much though. After all, what Santiago seemed to understand, as did Jack Hill incidentally, was that a film needn't have a vast, lavish production nor eyewatering budgets. Just take a nice location and add some pretty women. Then, as long as the film throws in some action, humour, tits and guns, it will have an audience. This formula would, in essence, be a recasting of Godards “All you need for a movie is a gun and a girl” for the grindhouse generation. It is the formula for Fly Me! So does it work? Sure, why not!

Friday, 12 September 2014

Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons (2013)

6.5 out of 10
In Britain today there is a generation of people, probably now in their forties and fifties, who, back in the day, got with the whole Monkey Magic thing. You see, during the early eighties, the television version of Monkey enthralled, and occasionally flabbergasted, a generation inhabiting a world of Angel Delight, 3-2-1, VHS cassettes, Captain Beaky and His Band and home computers with rubber keys. Indeed, Monkey would, along with The Young Ones, become one of the genuine cult classics of the era. Playgrounds would reverberate with the sounds of Dr Marten wearing Spotty Herberts kicking lumps out of one another in an attempt capture the whole slapstick martial arts thing while, at the same time, doing their best impersonations of various characters from the series. Thanks to Monkey, which would run for no more than two seasons, the characters Pigsy, Sandy, Monkey, Horse and Tripitaka would become household names. It would be, for those a little too young to remember the UK TV run of The Water Margin in the early seventies, a first taste of televised Chinese folklore. Both, incidentally, being produced by Nippon TV. So this would be classic Chinese fantasy as filtered via a Japanese television series and dubbed by the likes of Andrew “Basil he hamster” Sachs. The kids of Britain lapped it up! It is this Monkey King legend, as once explored in the sixteenth century Wu Cheng'en novel, that provides a rich seam to be mined by Stephen Chow, of Kung Fu Hustle  and Shaolin Soccer fame, and his co-director, Chi-kin Kwok. It is the basis for Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons. However, rather than concentrate on the epic journey westward in search of the Buddha scriptures that is suggested by the title, Chow's film focuses on earlier life of Tripitaka. Here, the holy one is depicted as a moral, quirky, Sideshow Bob haired demon hunter who has yet to tread the later stages of the path to spiritual enlightenment. It is in the company of Tripitaka that we spend much of this martial arts fantasy film as he attempts to find the good in the demons through song and recitations from his little book of nursery rhymes. All this, in essence, amounts to a prelude to the epic tale that British television viewers of a certain age would become far more familiar with. The film opens to an extended sequence of a “water world” which is being terrorised by a wrass-like water demon. It is here that we meet our hero, played by Zhang Wen. We also get to share in his unorthodox approach to his demon-slaying craft and get an indication of how much he differs from his peers in not just method but also in motivation. In this first third during what is, in practice, little more than a homage to Jaws and complete with “wrong fish” scenario and underwater swimming shots, some misplaced slapstick and far too much mugging for camera fails to adequately convey the brilliance of the film that is to follow. However, things do pick up. Beginning with a fish exorcism, and with the introduction of a kick-ass love interest Qi Shu, the film soon abandons fins and begins to find its feet. Deriving much humour from the interplay between our two leads, and from the competition in the commercial world of demon hunting, the film consciously strikes a balance between the funny, the sweet and the over-the-top kung fu action sequences. Improving upon the opening segment our heroes are forced to confront a pig demon at a Titty Twister-esque inn, where scarlet candelabras hide Freddy Kruger type blades, and a delicious hog roast is in truth a feast of human flesh for the unsuspecting. Possibly the strongest section of the film comes after the introduction of the Monkey King, Sun Wukong. This is during the final third of the feature and is certainly worth waiting for. Sun, who is Played by Bo Huang, has been trapped by Buddha within a mountain for five centuries and his devious scene-stealing interplay with his fellow lead characters, as he attempts to wisecrack his way to freedom, is just sublime and seems to have elements of Beetlejuice about it. This segment of the film leads to what is, possibly, the most visually arresting moments of the film as we see the beautiful Qi Shu dancing before the moon in a final calm before the film goes off into its action overload finale. If there is one problem with Journey to the West then it is regarding the use CGI. While CGI in general does not detract too much from action sequences if used wisely, it is especially problematic where it fails, for whatever reason, to convince. This concern particularly applies to the opening segment of this film, where the point of view moves towards a water city on stilts only for it to look very much, at a distance, like an out-take from the Myst computer game. Furthermose, the whole demon fish thing emphasises just how difficult it can be for it the techniques to work effectively when used with water. Thankfully, this shaky start proves to not be especially typical of what follows. The CGI is seldom great, but it does improve considerably throughout. Minor issues aside, the film is great fun, gets better as it progresses, and, in a strange kind of way, has a feel not unlike some of the recent wave of dark fairy tale inspired horror films such as Red Riding Hood or Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters. The aforementioned titles striking a similar tone with their balance of smart humour and computer enhanced in-yer-face action. The conclusion also features some the most uncompromisingly bad-ass deity madness since the bonkers Indian devotional fantasy action movie Devi Maa.

Films are rated by giving them a score from one to ten green pickles. The actual score depends on my mood at the time of writing and reflect no worthier a quality than how much the film actually entertained me. It is not a judgement of how good or bad a film is. Nor is it rocket science.