Bellflower (2011)

I first found out about this film thanks to Roger Ebert’s “At The Movies” TV show. It looked beautiful and interesting, so I immediately forgot about it for ages, until I saw it for rental a few days ago. If you’re interested in using my words for a future DVD box of this (remind me that I’ve sold out, if that ever happens), then “beautiful and interesting” is a pretty good summation of it all.

But you don’t come here for one paragraph reviews! Basically, this film is almost entirely the work of Evan Glodell, who wrote, directed, edited and starred in this film; he plays Woodrow, who along with his friend Aiden, share a childhood obsession with Mad Max that’s led them to create a bunch of post-apocalyptic weaponry, including most memorably a flame-thrower. Aside from this passion, they’re a couple of drinkin’, druggin’ slackers, and the early portion of the film gives a strong indication it’s going to be a comedy about these two misfits and their attempts to find love.

Woodrow and Aiden are fish out of water in LA, having moved from Wisconsin, and live in scummy apartments (although they have no jobs, they’re able to afford to build these awesome gadgets and go to bars all the time). Woodrow takes part in a cricket-eating contest with Milly, and their two social circles become entwined. However, the film starts taking a darker turn quite early on, as Woodrow goes, kind-of on a whim, with Milly to Texas (the film’s largely based in the flat, working-class suburbs of Los Angeles), and an asshole local grabs her butt. It’s an indicator of what’s to come, in more ways than one.

I think, the most important thing about this film is the visual style. It looks amazing, shot by a one-of-a-kind handmade camera – the colours seem amazingly over-saturated at times, and like a 1970s-shot home movie at others. For the cost of making it (reportedly $17,000, but I’d lay good money on that not including a lot of deferred salaries) it’s even more amazing, and I think even if he never makes another film, Glodell (along with cinematographer Joel Hodge) could have a career in helping other indie filmmakers.

The resolution of the film is a little more problematic. I paused it at what I thought was about the ten-minutes-to-go stage in order to make myself a cup of coffee, and I discovered that the film was only just half over – they packed a lot of incident into that first half, while still keeping that beautiful dreamlike look and style. Without spoilering it, relationships come and go, and while I can appreciate the non-linear aspects of the second half of the film (most of the first half is fairly straightly told), by the end I still felt a bit cheated by the lack of certain elements. I don’t think it earned its turn into darkness, or its ending(s).

Also, the acting is pretty much what you’d expect from a film which cost so little. Woodrow and Aiden are about tolerable, but the two main women in the film are, without putting too fine a point on it, awful. They’re not treated wonderfully by the film, either – I can’t tell if that’s just how relationships among that particular social milieu go, or if the filmmaker was a bit of a misogynist, and he just expected women to put up with him sitting around drinking cheap beer, watching TV, and paying no attention to them.

I think it’s absolutely worth watching, though. As well as being visually unique, it also has a bit more of a plot than your average micro-budget 21st century indie film. The structural tricks it plays means it’s worth watching too, just to try and puzzle it out (I think I’ll pop it in again soon, and see if I like it more the second time).

I feel like there’s a key that I don’t have that unlocks layers of meaning in this film. The fact that the film made me think that is in its favour, even if it was just a load of navel-gazing about hipsters building a Mad Max car because they didn’t have anything better to do in LA. So, to sum up, I’ll give it a hearty “okay…I guess?”

Bellflower on IMDB
Buy Bellflower (Uncut)

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Fighting Caravans (1931)

Directed by: Otto Brower and David Burton

Gary Cooper plays Clint Belmet, a greenhorn frontier scout operating under the tutelage of a couple of wise old dogs. Cooper and the old dogs are charged with leading a train of freight wagons across the Country to sunny California. One of the dogs is played by a Scottish actor called Ernest Torrence, he really is the glue that holds the film together, and he delivers his lines in a brusque poetic manner. His voice reminds me a lot of the late Rugby commentator Bill McLaren.

We’re introduced to Belmet at a point where he finds himself behind bars and under threat of spending thirty days in jail due to his roguish actions. Thinking on his feet the wily Scotsman Ernest Torrence convinces a sultry French siren called Felice played by Errol Flynn’s future wife Lili Damita to pretend she is newly engaged to Belmet in order to get him pardoned by the town’s Sheriff. Felice is a lonely traveller hoping to make a new life in California and willingly goes along with the scam, in order to stay with the train. Throughout the film Belmet’s two colleagues prevent him from falling for Felice’s Gallic charms.

After the humorous beginning the trail trudges on. Despite the film running in at eighty minutes there is a great deal of irreverent prattle and plenty of plodding which makes for tedious viewing. The journey doesn’t seem to be much of a struggle, and it isn’t until the moment those dastardly Comanche’s drop by for big ol’ gun battle that the risk factor amps up several levels with arrows flying, damsels screaming and bodies falling.

Though Fighting Caravans contains some wonderfully shot scenes, such as the train crossing a river towards the end of movie, the film is quite a slog to sit through. I think this is mostly because Gary Cooper is such a dull, leaching screen presence. Whereas Ernest Torrence and Lili Damita are quite captivating performers, Cooper in comparison has no magnetism. I was disappointed by this, because compared to John Wayne and Gene Autrey in the recent nineteen thirties westerns that I have covered, Cooper is by far the weakest actor, and this is despite John Wayne delivering his lines in Randy Rides Alone like a voiceover artist for a local hospital radio station that has just came back from a Ayahuasca trip.

I think the most interesting thing connected to this film is that I discovered by way of Wikipedia that Errol Flynn and Lili Damita’s son Sean was a freelance photo journalist who disappeared in Cambodia whilst covering the Vietnam War. His photography is certainly worth seeking out.

– RJW
5/10

Fighting Caravans on IMDB
Buy Fighting Caravans [1931] [DVD]

Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship and Videotape

 

For those of who rented real gosh-darn videotapes from real shops back in the day (I’m a few years too young to have participated in the first video nasty panic, but I watched some right garbage nontheless), this film is part trip down memory lane, part blood-boiling “what were they thinking?” outrage.

This is the first documentary I’ve reviewed for this site, and to be honest I watch a lot more of them than I do “proper” films. With HD cameras being ten a penny these days, any old goober can make a documentary, and there’s a lot of them about (maybe too many, to be honest). Nice if your interests are niche, not so nice if this is the third documentary you’ve seen this week which is 75% comprised of a few old men talking into a camera. Problem is, unless I know enough about the subject under discussion to have a real opinion on it, I don’t like saying too much about them…but this one, I’ve seen a lot of the films and have lived through many similar media scares, so here goes.

How many of those crappy crappy films have you seen?

We get a bit of history – it starts off with the advent of home video, and quickly companies who could never have afforded cinema distribution started releasing any old piece of crap. The funny thing about this whole story is, most of the affected works are just rotten – there’s one or two gems in there, but if you think “video nasty”, you’re more than likely going to get something like “Anthropopagous the Beast”, “Cannibal Ferox” and “Evilspeak”.

So, you’re in the early 1980s, and in a position where you can go down to the local corner shop and bag yourself a copy of whatever you like, and in its very early days there were no censorship or ratings at all. A few famous film directors like Christopher Smith (my series on his films will continue soon) and Neil Marshall, lots of authors and academics all tell the story of what went on. Lurid advertising drew the interest of the “moral majority” when the actual contents weren’t that bad, and a few people blame those old distributors (while acknowledging the whole war was a little silly).

Now, there’s not a lot of sense taking you through the history of it, partly because there’s lots of other ways you can read about it, and mostly because it’s not all that interesting. What is interesting is the way people lay out the methods used by the religious right and the tabloids to whip up a storm, get the law changed and then move on (the fact that virtually every banned film is now available uncut from your local HMV is commented on towards the end).

What I think this film really wants to get across is that we need to remember. The undoubted star of the film for me is Martin Barker, a professor of film who was subjected to a brief witch hunt in the 1980s for daring to say “hey, maybe we shouldn’t ban these films”. There’s footage on the hilarious / anger-inducing spectrum of a TV debate where a bishop is shouting down Martin, and the present-day Martin still can’t quite believe how rude everyone on the other side of the debate was. He’s clearly thought and written a lot on the subject, and what he wants us all to see is that this will happen again (whether about film or some other topic which the press can use to whip up fools), and we really need to be a bit more aware of the tactics used by those who want to tell us what we can’t see, read, listen to, own, whatever.

This film is available as part of the 3-disc set “Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide”, and is absolutely worth watching. There are a few problems with it, though. First up is there’s too many people in it – aside from the main participants, there’s a whole bunch of people whose sole qualification seems to be they’ve got a big collection of really, really bad films on the wall behind them. Kim Newman, a particularly tedious opinion-for-hire who must have a very good agent or have slept his way to the top, because he didn’t get there on talent, is featured way too much also (but I’ll admit my opinion on him isn’t shared by everyone, god knows why).

The central flaw of the film is that it lets the people who supported, lobbied for and pushed through Parliament, the censorship laws off the hook. The current head of the National Viewers and Listeners Association, the Christian front group which fights for more censorship, is allowed to grin his way through a “well, these films are horrible” speech, and the MP who both grossly misrepresented an unpublished report, and said that video nasties could have a bad effect on dogs (!), is not questioned on those utterly baseless lies either. If you’re going to get those people in front of the camera, it seems odd to just let them tell the same old lies of 30 years ago.

So, an interesting if fairly minor film. If they’d trimmed a few people out and had more of the excellent Andy Nyman and Christopher Smith, and asked the pro-censorship lobby some harder questions, it could have been great, but they didn’t sadly.

Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship and Videotape on IMDB
Buy Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide DVD

Cinematic Titanic – “Rattlers”

Cinematic Titanic are five comedians who used to be the stars of my favourite TV show, “Mystery Science Theater 3000”. If you’re unaware, it was about a man trapped in space with only his two robots for company, who was subjected to awful films by a mad scientist and his assistant. The show had plenty of cast changes down the years, and of these five people, they never all appeared in the same episode together (the other three main cast members now do the similar-but-I-don’t-like-it-quite-as-much Rifftrax), but almost 25 years after the show started and 13 since it ended, they’re back doing the same sort of thing.

The first few Cinematic Titanic releases were in-studio affairs, high-concept stuff about a time capsule where they’d put these bad old movies with a special new commentary on, but as they were getting offers to do live shows, they realised that they actually enjoyed doing them much more than they enjoyed the studio stuff, and it allowed them to try jokes out on live audiences, refine their stuff, so all their DVD releases for the past few years have been recordings of live shows. So you’ll get the five performers on the far left and right of the screen, largely immobile but occasionally gesturing to get a joke across, and the film in the middle. If you’re not sure about your tolerance for having a bunch of comedians crack wise over the top of an old film, I’d suggest dipping your toe in the pool with some of the Mystery Science Theater 3000 clips on Youtube.

Their latest release is “Rattlers”. Now, I’ve seen a lot of films, and thanks to my university habit of reading a few pages of a film review book every night to help me fall asleep, I’ve read about a lot of damn films. But I’ve never heard of this one, and from the look of it it’s an early-mid 70s release. How do they keep finding these? Have they got a hookup at an old abandoned drive in cinema who kept copies of all these Z features? Anyway…whole bunches of rattlesnakes are messing people up, and a few cops, a herpetologist and a war photographer are on the case to bring them down.

I don’t I even really need to mention the commentary from the CT guys all that much, other than to say they really nail it with this one. There’s lots of dead air for them to fill with jokes, and there’s also quite a bit of stuff on screen that’s so stupid that the audience just laughs without any prompting from the people on stage. For instance, there’s a cage containing a snake in a lab where the lock falls off thanks to someone slamming a door into it. Now, I’m no genius, but if I’m designing a lab, I’m probably going to make sure that the poisonous snakes are a bit safer than that.

I like dreaming up behind-the-scenes stories for very bad films (well, it helps pass the time), and this film gave me rich pickings. The war photographer is a woman, and her first line, pretty much, is a passionate and angry defence of the rights of women, of equality, of the sexism inherent in society, and so on. I reckon the director had a particularly liberated girlfriend at the time, who was influencing him – perhaps a little too much, I mean, it’s pretty strident stuff. Anyway, she’d clearly dumped him by the half-hour point of the film, because the rest of it’s just appalling – they go to visit a guy in hospital and he’s just sat there reading porn; one of the guys on the military base just acts like the sleaziest dude imaginable, then offers to look after the woman while the man goes off to do man stuff, and she’s a simpering little girly-girl; and the inevitable transformation of the strong, independent war photographer into a pathetic “I can’t run any further, please help me” wreck is complete by about the hour mark.

So, we’ve got snakes (who, when real ones are shown, seem much more interested in getting away from the humans than they do biting them), a military base with a dark secret…which gets accidentally given away by a dumb helicopter pilot, and a bunch of mutated snakes (spoiler!) The film doesn’t so much end as they just got bored of filming stuff and drove away. And they left it open for a sequel…I hear the rights are still available, producers!

This guy is seriously trying to hypnotise a snake

I enjoy watching films in the company of Joel Hodgson, J Elvis Weinstein, Mary Jo Pehl, Frank Conniff and Trace Beaulieu. They’ve been doing this forever so know what to do – not talk over the important parts of dialogue, and if someone on screen asks a question and there’s a pause, you know one of them will jump in with something good. I was thinking of something critical to write here, so you know I’m not just a gushing fan, but screw it. This was a great DVD, and I reckon you’d enjoy it. Some of the films they pick are so leaden that you can’t really do anything with them, and there is the occasional duff CT episode, but this is them really working well.

Man of the Frontier (1936)

Directed by: B. Reeves Eason

Before we go any further it is important that you recite aloud Gene Autrey’s ‘The Cowboy Code’.
1. The Cowboy must never shoot first, hit a smaller man, or take unfair advantage.
2. He must never go back on his word, or a trust confided in him.
3. He must always tell the truth.
4. He must be gentle with children, the elderly, and animals.
5. He must not advocate or possess racially or religiously intolerant ideas.
6. He must help people in distress.
7. He must be a good worker.
8. He must keep himself clean in thought, speech, action, and personal habits.
9. He must respect women, parents, and his nation’s laws.
10. The Cowboy is a patriot.

Autrey is a triple threat, in the all singing, all dancing, all action sense. He is kind of like an olden day’s version of Channing Tatum (or would a better example be Justin Timberlake?). ‘Man of The Frontier’ was a great vehicle to carry Autrey’s talent. He rides horses like a boss. He sings like a mournful Irish fisherman. He is a hit with the ladies. He fights like a WWF wrestler from the mid-eighties.

The story starts when some dastardly villain blows up a damn with some explosives. Everyone in this small little town gets flustered, because it is likely to affect the crops. The irrigation company is informed by a 1930’s black man. I don’t need to describe this character any further, because doing so would make me a racist. He does perform a marvelous dance routine though.

We are introduced to our hero, Mr Autrey, as a runaway bull bolts towards two children playing in the middle of a dusty street. Autrey leaps from his horse and wrestles the bull to the ground. This impresses his future love interest, and this films damsel, the enchanting Frances Grant. Autrey after proving himself not just as a man, but to be the man, gets offered a position guarding the local waterways, he accepts and becomes a ‘ditch rider’. Working alongside Smiley Burnette, Gene risks life and limb.

The film is interesting because it displays how important irrigation is to a farming community, and there is also real solidarity shown by the director towards the working man. The workers bond together at the saloon, they converse animatedly their rights, and they fight like double hard bastards when these discussions inevitably break down.

Before watching ‘Man of the Frontier’ I was unfamiliar with Gene Autrey. His performance, full of endearing charm and nobility strikes a chord. It’s difficult to understand the true motivation of the bad guys, they want to fudge up the dam operation, but to what end? From what I could gather the farmer’s property would be vulnerable after a flood, and the baddies would therefore capitalize.

– RJW
5/10

Man of the Frontier on IMDB

The films of Christopher Smith: “Severance”

“Severance” is a really good film. If you’ve seen a DVD case for it, or read a capsule review on some site, then you might, just might, not be all that impressed with how it sounds – Brit horror comedy, starring Mark Kermode-bait Danny Dyer, no big names in it. Or you might have seen it and not liked it, in which case I’ll probably fight you at some point in your life – keep an eye out, you never know when I’ll be there. In fact, I could spend this entire review spewing hypotheticals about who you are. And although it definitely wouldn’t be boring, I’ll start talking about the film and stuff.

It’s a simple plot – a group of employees for an arms manufacturer get sent on a corporate retreat to some Eastern European country, and encounter both their own stupidity and a group of…who? Army deserters? Mental patients who’ve organised themselves into some sort of militia? A criminal gang? But that’s not the fun thing about it – it’s the skill of Christopher Smith in turning this base metal into gold; it’s the melding of a horror sensibility with a group of comedy actors and comedians; and it’s a clever script which knows just when to take itself seriously and when to go for laughs, a rarity in horror comedies.

It starts off with a couple of very unhappy young women, and a much unhappier young man because he’s about to be disembowelled, being pursued by persons unknown through a forest, and falling into a pit. The women try and fashion implements from their own clothes in order to get out, so we’re left with a couple of scared, mostly naked, Eastern European prostitutes in a big pit (I’m not being mean about them, they really are prostitutes). They throw a clothes-and-log grappling hook out of the pit and it sticks to something! Cut to –

Palisade Defence, an up-and-coming arms manufacturer, has sent its European sales division on a corporate jolly to Hungary. I had to look this up, as even though I watched it yesterday I was drawing a blank on where they went, and I know that absolute accuracy is the thing you readers really want. They’re on a three-quarters-empty bus, which indicates either a subtle reference to how badly their business is doing, or that was the only bus the producers of the film could afford. A fallen tree and an argument, not helped by Steve (Danny Dyer) nipping off into the loo for a crafty “herbal cigarette”, causes the driver to just walk off, leaving our gang to set off on foot for the luxury lodge which has been booked for them.

Problem Is, the lodge, when they find it, really isn’t that luxurious. It’s a bit grotty, and the grounds around it are overgrown, and there’s really nothing inside it for the purposes of entertaining a bunch of young executives. But, the British spirit is to make do with what you have, so they try and get settled in to their new surroundings.

This is the setup for what turns out to be one of the best British horror films of recent years. There’s tales told round the campfire of what sort of people used to live in the “lodge”, and maybe none of them are right, but maybe all of them are, and that’s one of the many clever touches in this film. And also, it’s really hard to write reviews when your cat decides she is the most interesting thing in the room.

So, there’s those stories, there’s one brief, beautiful moment of fourth-wall breaking, and there’s the bit when the cast find themselves getting bumped off, and have to both flee and fight back. So much of my enjoyment of the film was the way the format was messed with, along with what would have been a perfectly decent little horror-comedy in its own right.

So, 4.5 out of 5. Christopher Smith’s first properly great film, and there’s more to come. I recommend getting yourself the DVD and enjoying one of the most fun commentaries you’re likely to hear, as well.

Severance on IMDB
Buy Severance [DVD] [2006]