2012 Film Challenge #55 - Tootsie

I remember once reading one of those opinion pieces somewhere. I can't remember where. But you know the type: They make you feel as though nothing's alright in your life.

The notion was put forward that for a man to dress in drag should be viewed as equally offensive an act as blacking-up.

It was only whilst watching Tootsie that it sunk in just how absurd a notion this is.

At first, I feared that Michael's transformation into Dorothy – with all his affected stereotypes - might well be viewed as offensive by many.

Offensive too might be the idea that, in the world of Tootsie, it takes a man in drag to free scores of women from their overbearing, disrespectful partners.

But as the film progressed, a few things occurred to me.

First of all, Michael finds that the whole transgender experience invigorating and liberating. "I was a better man with you as a woman than I ever was with a woman as a man. Know what I mean?"

Yes, Michael. I know exactly what you mean.

Second of all, though it takes the catalyst of Dorothy to make the women in this film question their surroundings, I'm here reminded of the story of Johnny Rotten walking down the street with an annotated Pink Floyd t-shirt.

With tippex, he'd altered the legend on the t-shirt to read “I HATE Pink Floyd.”

I believe the argument these days is that you have to consider as to why Mr. Rotten had the t-shirt in the first place.

Was it perhaps because the love was there all along and he'd just felt obliged to mask it in artifice?

No smoke without fire.

Know what I mean?

And anyway. Surely to suggest that cross-dressing is somehow offensive to women is to insult the section of the LGBT community contained within the T?


Anyway, Tootsie.

A lot of fun.

A cross-dressing comedy which is even better than Mrs. Doubtfire and about as good as Some Like It Hot.
And that's it.

From me, I mean. There's a lot more to Tootsie. But that's it from me.

For now.

I'm going away for a bit.

I don't imagine there'll be any films in the next two weeks.

But you never know.

Not to assume that I have such a readership from which I'll have to excuse myself, but we all have our crutches.


2012 Film Challenge #54 - Soldier

One of the first films I watched this year was an insult to a beloved franchise.

I've been made to understand that Kull the Conqueror makes a mockery of its source material.

I described it as a “brash, camp, unashamedly naff nineties source & sorcery & sandals & swords gay comedy epic.”

I was told that the original Robert E Howard stories were “incredibly dark and grim, laden with symbolism and commentary on civilization and barbarism, and expertly written short stories.”

Oh my, did I feel silly.

Well, no. I didn't. At all.

I think that even if I were to immerse myself in a stack of Robert E Howard Kull stories for a two month period, were I to rewatch the film version I'd feel exactly the same way as I did when I wrote my review.

It's for the same reason that I can still enjoy Sylvester Stallone's Judge Dredd film even though I now know that 2000AD fans view the film with as much disgust as they'd view a vagabond who's just held up a picture of their sister and licked it suggestively.

It's because Judge Dredd and Kull The Conqueror both have a very special feel to them.

It's the feel of a stack of rented videos watched sequentially on a rainy Saturday afternoon in the nineties.

The films we used to rent were big, bold, brash, colourful and, quite possibly, completely devoid of any artistic merit.

But oh how we loved them.

And the reason we loved them was because these films weren't designed to tick many boxes beyond the one marked “entertain”.

I got an identical feel from Soldier. It's likely that the only reason we didn't watch it on rented video in the nineties was because of its 18 certificate.

In those days, even films with 15 certificates were frowned upon by those who drove us to the shop and actually paid for our rentals.

I know it's a massive cop-out for any writer to ever say “I guess you had to be there”, but I honestly believe that the only way you can understand what I'm getting at when I covet films such as this is to have grown up with me and enjoyed hundreds of similar films on hundreds of rented videos on hundreds of rainy weekends by my side.

Had you been there, you'd find a pleasant fizz of Dr. Pepper sparkling unbidden across your tongue when you so much as consider the existence of films like Kull The Conqueror, Judge Dredd, and, most recently, Soldier.

I was captivated right from the opening montage which detailed the process by which, in this future society, babies are taken and trained from teat to terror – they're manufactured as hardened killers.

A ten year old Kurt Russell is forced to watch as a pack of braying dogs rip to shreds a cage full of pigs. I was struck by how they gave the young Kurt Russell identical hair to the older Kurt Russell.

And, when Kurt Russell finally came of age, I was struck by how much he resembles Apprentice victor Ricky Martin.

So Kurt Russell is a supersoldier called Todd 3465. His world is turned upside down when he's introduced to his replacements. They're better than him at everything. So he blinds their leader in one eye.

This doesn't impress the future military brass, so they banish him to a desolate wasteland.

And it was here that the wonderful nineties rented action sci-fi feel first sunk in. The world to which he's banished takes the best bits of the post-apocalyptic societies of Mad Max 3, Waterworld and the desert scenes in Judge Dredd and combines them into a dusty vista of nostalgia. I was quite tired whilst watching Soldier. But when I first saw the world to which Tod was banished I knew it was one I'd have to stick out to the end. They had me.

This wasteland is literally a land of waste. The people live amongst the ruins of aircraft carriers and starships. Reportedly, the film takes place in the same universe as Blade Runner – a Spinner from said film can be glimpsed amongst the wreckage. I wonder what Mr. K. Dick would have made of such a trope?

No. At no point in its 100 minute run-time was there anything Soldier could call its own. This is all stuff we've seen thousands of times before.

Oh, but it's so much fun. The future world depicted felt real and lived-in. Things exploded, and Kurt Russell's performance was astounding by anyone's standards.

As an unfeeling killing machine who's trained to shoot hostages if they're stood in the way of hostiles, his face is an immobile mask of cold instinct.

But those eyes! Who needs gesture, tone or expression when you've got entire worlds to explore with your eyes? To look into them is both tragic and unnerving. You can see the desire to kill, but you can also see a subdued desire to feel, to connect.

And the way he addressed most everyone as “sir” is just adorable.

I don't generally believe in the existence of “guilty pleasures”. As far as I'm concerned, should it give you pleasure and nobody gets hurt, then why should it make you feel guilty?

But if ever there was something I enjoy massively which, perhaps, I'm not “supposed” to enjoy on any level beyond that of irony, I suppose it would be these throwaway big-budget 1990s action sci-fi epics.

Though I'm quite convinced that not only can the lasting appeal of such films be found with not much in the way of digging, but also that such enjoyment can be garnered even by those who weren't sat by my side on those countless rainy weekends.


2012 Film Challenge #53 - Ghost Ship

I think I should stop watching all horror films made after a yet-to-be-determined arbitrary cut-off year.

Modern horror just seems to make me angry.

A lot of the films I watch and review (if you can call what I do here “reviewing”) are probably “bad films” by a lot of people's standards.

Yet despite the wobbly sets, the inchoate plots, the hammy acting and the feeble dialogue, these films have something which I find to be unfortunately lacking in the vast majority of modern horror.

Call it charm. Call it atmosphere. Call it The X-Factor, if you really want to.

But no matter what you call it, my point is that these days, something's missing. Something's wrong.

Ironically, I'm quite certain that this missing something can be blamed on a general air of maximalism. If you swathe too much paint onto a canvas, eventually you'll get a thick brown sludge which will peel slowly and die.

Those who make horror these days seem to have forgotten that the dampest corners of the collective subconscious of any audience paints a much scarier picture than even the most generous of SFX budgets.

Take Ghost Ship, for instance. It desperately wants to be “The Shining at Sea”, but it ends up being a quite literally watered-down Event Horizon clone.

At one point a character wanders through a deserted ballroom. Right before his eyes, by process of very expensive CGI, time reverses itself as the ballroom is gradually returned to its former glory.

This character, we're led to believe, is under some kind of evil bewitchment. But it's hard to relate to his possessed mind when all we're presented with is smokes and mirrors.

It would have been much more disturbing – both for him and for us – had the apparent transition to the past occurred in the blink of an eye. But no. Ghost Ship would much rather dazzle you with fancy computerised fireworks than attempt to tap into that part of your brain which has given the horror genre such an enduring appeal.

That scene, I feel, sums up the film in one.

Or perhaps does the utterly implausible and farcical opening scene, in which an entire dancefloor is bisected by a tautened wire placed exactly where it wouldn't be on a real ship. This massacre demands that you suspend all disbelief immediately. Unfortunately, all that we're subsequently presented with only serves to bore and irritate.

They had limitless potential with the abandoned cruise ship setting (complete with blood-soaked faded 60s glamour motif!) but they ruin any chances they might ever have had of achieving something memorable by adding layer upon layer of tired and lazy tropes.

A little girl wanders the corridors, all evil grins and sinister leers. Even for the 3% of the target audience who somehow haven't yet seen The Shining, any disquiet she might ever have instilled instantly vanishes the second she's revealed to be an ally.

So the real monsters must be really scary, right? I mean, if the creepy little girl's on our side, imagine what horrors lay in store for us once the more malicious spirits show themselves?

No. They just look like everyone else. Sigh. Regular people who get a little bit older! Is that scary? Maybe. I mean, you've not seen The Shining, remember?

Beyond that, you have shadowy corridors which lead to further shadowy corridors – all of which are lit by roving torch lights and little else.

Perhaps directors still think that such darkness will be scary because to explore such an environment in the flesh really would freak most people out.

Onscreen, though, it's different. Because we've followed countless heroines through countless shadowy corridors, it's almost as though we're viewing them in stark daylight. We're led by the hand at all times. We're not quite warned in advance, and yet still we know as to exactly when something's going to jump out and make a loud noise.

Loud noises are scary. Will this do?

No, it won't.

And then there's the music. If nothing else, Ghost Ship acts as a time capsule to such unfortunate early 21st century ideas as “metal is terrifying!”

And yes, it can be. Nu Metal, though, was the worst music ever. It's ridiculous. Its prominence in Ghost Ship, then, makes Ghost Ship ridiculous by association alone.

And then later there's an extended flashback of an atrocity exhibition. We see wave after wave of people murdered in increasingly sadistic ways.

Testament, once again, to the lack of imagination (and abundance of arrogance and pretension) that went into making Ghost Ship is the choice of music and presentation for this scene.

Trip-hop. Slow motion.

It looks like a perfume advert.

Ghost Ship was completely joyless from start to finish.

And yet, this disasterpiece of fathomless mediocrity doesn't even represent the pits of modern horror.

How utterly depressing.


2012 Film Challenge #52 - The Beast Must Die

An obsessive hunter lures a group of people to his country pad and, over dinner, reveals that he knows that one of them is a werewolf.

An Amicus production which would dearly like to be a Hammer, The Beast Must Die is never anything less than engaging and intriguing. Emphasis is given to mystery and suspense over horror and shocks. It also has to be a very early example of the use of grainy recorded footage for added scares, as much of the action is viewed on CCTV monitors.

The gloomy atmosphere is enhanced further by quite a marvelous cast. Michael Gambon's there, doing his thing. And we also get treated to the enrapturing spectacle of Peter Cushing as he commands an endearing Germanic accent.

But pretty much every single scene is absolutely dominated by our obsessed and possibly demented host: The incredibly charismatic Calvin Lockhart.

He brings a touch of cool dynamism to proceedings; A rare feat indeed for the usually so staid, measured and polite world of vintage British Horror.

His wardrobe alone makes a viewing worthwhile. During dinner he wears a striking jacket decorated with star and planet motifs (see above - I want one); whilst seconds before hunting the wereworlf he changes into a fabulous shimmering black leather shirt.

I bet he refers to it as his “Killin' Get-Up”.

Who wouldn't?

If you watch and read enough mystery, you tend to take it for granted that the initial suspect will not ultimately be proven guilty. Nonetheless, The Beast Must Die really does abide by that old cliché: Verily does it “keep you guessing to the end”.

It has a curious little “Werewolf Interlude” - 30 seconds in which the audience are allowed to speculate one last time as to who they think to be the resident lycanthrope.

I'm not exaggerating when I say that every film would benefit from a Werewolf Interlude.