Thursday, 27 July 2017

I've Just Seen: Slither (2006)

 Director: James Gunn

I watched this on the recommendation of fellow blogger SJHoneywell; we share a similar taste in horror films, a trend which continues with Slither. Comedy-horror can be difficult to pull off, but Slither is both hilarious and horrifying, and often at the same time. It also cleverly references other horror films, but without being derivative or lazy.

We are introduced to the town of Wheelsy, a typical mid-America small town which is visited by an Invasion of the Body Snatchers' style parasite which infects local car dealer Grant Grant (played by the brilliant Michael Rooker, reminding me of his role as serial killer Henry). Soon the alien life is changing Grant, making him hungry for meat and growing long tentacles. His younger wife Starla is suspicious and enlists the help of policeman Bill (who has a crush on Starla). The plot follows the usual trajectory for these type of films, but has fun playing with the audience along the way.

As I said, this gets the balance between funny and frightening pretty much perfect. The comedy comes through the interactions of the characters and their bemusement at what is going on. The horror is genuinely gross at times. The scene where Brenda, used by alien-infected Bill as his human womb, bursts open, releasing millions of these parasites into Wheelsy. The bath scene, made iconic from its inclusion on the poster, is also memorable, and cleverly moves the plot along as well. Grant's final transformation, as the primary organisism that the infected seek to absorb themselves into (with orgasmic joy) makes you laugh out of revulsion as well as humour.

I don't know why this film was poorly received by audiences in 2006, despite critical approval. Watching it now, the special effects haven't aged that badly, the writing is sharp, and many of the stars have gone on to become even more famous in recent years. Unless you hate gooey, slimy, even silly horror, there is so much to enjoy here.

I've Just Seen: The Last Battle (Le Dernier Combat) (1983)

Director: Luc Besson

Besson's debut film is not strictly a silent film; it has a lot of sound and noise on its soundtrack, from whistling wind, to pelting rain, and clanging gates. But there is not dialogue, apart from one word -  'bonjour' - and the post-apocalyptic setting implies some sort of event has happened rendering humans speechless; the characters work very hard to say this one word. The black-and-white cinematography gives this science-fiction story a timeless quality: it is set in the future, but also harks back to early cinema.

The story follows 'The Man' around this desolate world of urban ruin and environmental bleakness. The first we see of him is having sex with a blow-up doll in a dilapidated apartment, the first of many striking images in this film. He leaves this place after some unknown men pursue him, flying in a handmade aircraft. The Man eventually meets with 'The Doctor,' a man living a another town, who has a secret that another man, 'The Brute' (played by Besson regular Jean Reno), is trying to get at. The Doctor fixes The Man after he crashes, and eventually reveals his secret to him. In the final third of the film The Man and The Brute battle over this secret.

As I said, this film has several interesting images in it. The most startling is the scene of fish falling along with rain on the town, and The Man gleefully gathering them up in a giant pile. Later pieces of rock fall like rain on The Man and The Doctor. The Man's first "home" is an old office block and he sits at a desk, still with some paraphernalia on it, but instead of carpet there is sand on the ground. We never learn what has happened, yet we know that it is something cataclysmic.

I was really impressed by this film, particularly knowing it was a debut feature. Besson has become well known for weird, brightly coloured and fast-paced science-fiction, so watching where he started off is very interesting. We are given few answers as to why the world has been all but destroyed, and instead experience the brutal level of survival the characters are living.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

I've Just Seen: Z (1969)

 Director: Costa-Gavras

Use the word 'political' to describe a film these days, and most people are likely to turn off. This was not always the case, as many 60s films can attest. Z is a political thriller (not an oxymoron!) in the same vein as The Battle of Algiers, following the political fate of a country suffering under oppressive government rule. A leader of the peaceful leftist party is killed in drive-by accident, a set-up by the right-wing government, and a magistrate and journalist work to undercover the cover-up.

This doesn't sound thrilling on paper, but Costa-Gavras' film is both passionate in its politics, and very entertaining. Like Pontecorvo's film, Z doesn't have a specific protagonist but instead follows the fate of the unnamed nation as a whole. We know the truth from the start - that the government was deeply involved in the murder, making it an assassination -  and are whipped up into energetic frustration at the prospect of the government getting away with it (why does this sound so relevant?).

The screenplay is superb, as it introduces us to this politically charged world, and to the people who live in it, from the corrupt elite government officials, the weary opposition, the law and media trying to discover the truth, to the citizens with their diverse opinions and loyalties.

As you can tell, I really enjoyed this. It never talks down to its audience, trusting them to keep up with the story and the large cast of characters. The only reason you may not enjoy this film is if your politics is different to Costa-Gavras'; there is little doubt about his allegiances, though considering the recent history of Europe when the film was made (25 years since the end of WWII), it is not surprising.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Another Year Older ...

The 18th of July is my birthday, and to mark its occasion this year I thought I would look at few of the films that came out the year I was born: 1990.

While not as stellar a year as 1939 or 1959, 1990 does have a several great films, a few of which I watched recently and really enjoyed. So here they are:

An Angel at My Table

Jane Campion's biographical film follows the life of New Zealand writer Janet Frame, spanning from her childhood to her success as a writer. Based on three different memoirs by Frame, three different actresses play her at different stages of her life; all sporting the same bright, frizzy orange hair. The film, like its subject, is quiet, yet very sympathetic to Frame and her life, and finds moments of humour among the pain.

Edward Scissorhands

This was the first Tim Burton film I saw, and it is still my favourite of his. The story is a lovely modern fairytale with a sweet performance by Johnny Depp as the titular Edward, and a wonderfully constructed world of pastel suburbia and a gothic oddness.


I am generally left cold by gangster films, finding all the wealth and crime unalluring. But Scorsese is a master of the genre, and from the opening scene you are thrown into this high octane world of drugs, guns and money. You know how it is going to end, with the American Dream turning into a nightmare, but the length of the film allows you to get to know these people and understand why they do what they do.


Lots of elements work so well in Reiner's film, from the script, the production design, the cinematography, to James Caan's performance. But what makes the film so good is Kathy Bates' Annie Wilkes, one of the best villians in any horror film. She manages to be convincingly kind, then too kind, then terrifying with her sudden outbursts of anger. Authors beware: don't tick off your fans!


Whit Stillman's film could easily have been pretenious nonsense, being set among the upper-class New York college students home for deb ball season. But the wry humour and affection Stillman has for these adolescent adults is clear and smooths any irritation. For a film that is largely people sitting in ornate rooms talking, it manages to be very cinematic and lovely to look at, with a melancholic nostalgia for the fleeting closeness of these friends.

Jacob's Ladder

This is a film I need to watch again. Its plot follows three different time periods: the Vietnam War, Jacob's current life working in a post office and living with girlfriend Jezzie, and his previous family and memories of his dead son. Things start to get strange when demonic beings start appearing in his life with Jezzie, leading Jacob to try and discover what is going on (as fellow soldiers in his platoon in Vietnam are experiencing the same thing). When you finally discover what is going on, it completely alters everything you've just seen, and shows how wonder film it at manipulating time.

Have I missed anything? Was your birth year a great year for film?

Thursday, 6 July 2017

I've Just Seen: Born Yesterday (1950); The Girl Can't Help It (1956)

 Directors: George Cukor; Frank Tashlin

I've grouped these two films together because they essentially share the same plot: a gangster hires a professional man to help educate his blonde girlfriend, and the teacher and student fall in love. In Born Yesterday Judy Holliday is the blonde Billie, with William Holden as journalist Paul Verrall, while Tom Ewell and Jayne Mansfield are Tom Miller and Jerri Jordan in The Girl Can't Help It. In the first, Harry Brock wants Verrall to educate Billie as she embarrasses him in front of potential business partners; in Tashlin's film Miller is hired to make Jerri a star in order to reinstate Fats Murdock's reputation as a 'somebody' gangster.

In terms of the love stories of each film, Born Yesterday does a better job of convincing you that Billie and Paul are attracted to each other. The chemistry between Holden and Holliday is allowed to develop, and they get a number of scenes to talk to one another. The Girl Can't Help It tells us a great deal about Jerri's life, but Miller doesn't reveal much about himself: his attraction appears to be largely for surface reasons. The script for Born Yesterday is much better; it was based on a play after all!

That being said, there is much to enjoy in The Girl Can't Help It. As the first rock 'n' roll musical it has a fantastic soundtrack; Fats Domino and Little Richard feature among others. Jayne Mansfield made a career of being a Marilyn Monroe-type (or exaggeration), but she is a great screen presence. I couldn't help but be slightly mesmerised by her body shape: how did she get her waist that small! She is also a pretty good singer.

Judy Holliday as Billie won the Oscar for Best Actress in the same year that Anne Baxter and Bette Davis were nominated for All About Eve, and Gloria Swanson for Sunset Boulevard. All I can say is that this is further proof that the Oscars are meaningless. All of those women gave such wonderful, and different performances, and Holliday thoroughly deserved to be named among them. She is clearly having fun playing brassy Billie but also gives her depth; she responds well to Paul's teaching, and shows a sweet if sad backstory for the character.

I like Born Yesterday more than The Girl Can't Help It, but both are very enjoyable. While they seem to trade off on the 'dumb blonde' stereotype, both also play around with it in interesting ways.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

I've Just Seen: Thirst (2009)

Director: Park Chan-wook

Thirst is a modern vampire film merged with the plot of Emile Zola's novel Therese Raquin. A Catholic priest in South Korea, Sang-hyun, becomes a vampire after becoming infected while volunteering in Africa. He returns to Korea and falls in love with the wife of a childhood friend. The two start an affair that threatens to kill everyone around them.

I really like Park Chan-wook as a director. He doesn't hold back in terms of violence and horror, and creates twisty plots that constantly challenge your expectations. Right from the start Thirst gives us a clever variation on the vampire story. Sang-hyun's infection is delivered through a blood transfusion, and actually saves his life (in a way). Park Chan-wook also focuses on character, and this particularly drives the plot of Thirst.

Sang-hyun, though he loses his faith after his 'conversion,' still maintains certain morals about his behaviour. He drinks from patients at the hospital who are on drips or steals bags of blood so he doesn't kill anyone. He is not above murdering his lover Tae-ju's husband, but does so believing him to be abusive. She on the other hand is much more bloodthirsty, despite not being a vampire for most of the film.

Thirst manages to be gothic and modern, harking back to nineteenth century literature, and stories of vampires, with some new ideas thrown in. It is sexy, gory and clever, even if the story lags at times during its long run time. There are several scenes of gore that stay with you; Sang-hyun haemorrhaging while playing his flute, to the oddly romantic yet gross way Sang-hyun saves Tae-ju's life. You certainly know you are watching a Park Chan-wook film.

Sunday, 2 July 2017

I've Just Seen: Anvil: The Story of Anvil (2008)

 Director: Sacha Gervasi

Who would have thought a documentary about an aging, Canadian, heavy mental band would be so emotional, touching and ultimately uplifting?

Anvil is one of the those bands that are well respected in the industry, but have never managed to break out into the mainstream. The film starts with footage of a concert in Japan in the 80s, where Anvil played along with other bands who, the titles tell us, went on to sell millions of albums. We also have a few clips of interviews with people like Slash and Lemmy, explaining the impact of the band's album Metal on Metal on their music.

Rarely do you get the stories of the bands that didn't make it, and the rather brutal honesty of the film is one of the reasons why it works so well. We see lead singer "Lips" Kudlow working as a delivery man for a food charity, while the drummer works in construction. Interviews with their family and friends reflect on the heartbreak the band has experienced, having given their all and receiving little reward. The first part of the film follows a disasterous tour of Europe, including a rather Spinal Tap moment of missing a train, and playing in large arenas to handfuls of people. All this is painful to watch, as you see the strain it puts on the band and their friendships. The second half has the band working towards releasing a new album, one that is produced by Chris Tsangarides, who also produced Metal on Metal.

There are several moments that are truly lovely and/or heartbreaking to watch. First is Kudlow's sister lending him money to go to England to make the record with Chris. Lips cries on his sister's shoulder, and you clearly see the love she has for her brother. The other moment is when Lips and drummer Robb Reiner make up after a big argument. Lips tells Reiner that though they fight, he loves him like a brother.

A good story will make you invest in ideas you are usually not interested in. I know almost nothing about metal music, but found myself completely engrossed in the band's fate, and hoped that they would suceed. The spectre of This is Spinal Tap hangs over this film, but where that film brilliantly sent up the ridiculous side of band life and the music industry, Anvil lovingly celebrates the passion people have for this music.