Friday, 21 August 2015


everly has to be one of the most insane films i’ve seen in a while. sure, it starts off straightforward enough. the abused girlfriend of a yakuza boss shoots a bunch of guys sent to kill her and then has to defend herself against a bunch more guys, whilst also trying to protect her mother and daughter. in doing so she faces gun-toting prostitutes, rabid dogs, and a particularly creepy sadistic torturer with some very odd henchmen, among others. oh yeah, and it's pretty much all set in one room.

everly doesn’t exactly fit into one particular genre, veering between a contained action movie and rape-revenge horror film. the rape-revenge sub-genre is a complicated one, and worth bringing up in relation to how the film was received by critics. feminist film critics have often recognised the progressive nature of films like last house on the left or i spit on your grave, and yet at the same time criticised the portrayal of women as perpetual victims and the fact that they are ultimately forced to use their sexuality as a weapon. recent attempts at films in this genre have not been well received as filmmakers have tended to take anything interesting and progressive out of the narrative and focused entirely on the rape and the violence. thankfully, everly doesn’t fall into this trap and manages to keep its head well above the murky exploitation water.

while it opens with a sexual assault (which, crucially, we do not see), everly doesn’t dwell on what’s happened to the main character and focuses instead on what she is doing to move forward. it’s not about the rape, and it’s not even really about the revenge, it’s about survival. more than that, it’s about the survival of three generations of women. as a character, everly is never put in a situation where she has to use her sexuality to survive and instead relies on her instincts and the tools she has to hand. while the film is certainly presented via the male gaze, there is some effort to subvert that at times. a shower scene, for example, ends on a close-up of a gaping gunshot wound thus turning a moment of voyeurism into a moment of gore in what feels like a direct challenge to the audience.

many of the reviews of everly have really taken issue with the violence against hayek’s character in this film, and unfairly so. of course violence against women has to be taken seriously but really doesn't all violence in movies have to be taken seriously? and if that's the case why the fuck does everly receive more righteous condemnation than something like the mission impossible movies, which are considered harmless fun? in a lot of reviews the fact that everly is tortured and generally treated like a punching bag is brought up in a way that suggests we as an audience are supposed to take some kind of pleasure from seeing this. these people do not understand how films work.

let’s take die hard as an example. in die hard, bruce willis spends almost the entire film in a vest while his body is pummelled and shot at and he suffers all kinds of degradation and punishment. is our reaction to die hard disgust at the exploitation of the male body, or at the reinforcement of the idea that violence against men is okay? no, we watch die hard thinking ‘i can’t fucking wait until john mcclane gets to kick some ass in return for all the shit they’re putting him through’. it’s the same way we watch the rambo movies, the same way we watch any jackie chan movie or more recently anything with jason statham. a key element of the action film is that the hero, male or female, will be physically punished before they can triumph. action movies are about physicality and the physical strength of the hero, so of course that strength has to be tested. but if you replace that hero with a woman and put her through the same trials you would subject a man to, the critics, mostly male, decide to be pissed off about it. i mean, let’s flip this around. if everly featured channing tatum running around an apartment in his underwear, would there still be an issue?

i’m not saying that everly is a feminist film, and in some ways one of the things i like about it is that it’s not sucker punch .i.e. it’s not pretending to be an empowering experience for the women in the audience in a way that ends up being incredibly patronising. everly is an action film, and it’s appealing to an action film audience without caring whether that audience is male or female. feminism is about equality, not superiority, and everly as a character doesn’t experience anything on screen that we haven’t seen done to a million male action heroes, from james bond to john rambo.

sorry, that turned into a bit of a rant, and i’m kind of missing the point. there are some truly insane and imaginative moments in everly, and it’s all held together by a performance from hayek that brings a level of emotional depth to the film that i wasn’t expecting. more than anything, i badly wanted everly to survive and in that respect the film really worked for me

if you want to see something visceral, exciting and a bit different you should definitely check this out.

the decline of western civilization collection

the best music documentaries ever made are being released in a dvd box set with a bonus disc full of extra features. you really don’t need to know what I think about these films, you just need to see them, but in case you do require further convincing...

the decline of western civilization part 1 was released in 1981 and covers the punk scene in l.a. at that time. i’ll be honest, of the three films this was the one i was least interested in. i hadn’t heard of any of the bands and punk to me was the high energy, mtv-friendly bands of the 90s that my brother used to listen to; bands like green day and less than jake and offspring. i’d heard of the sex pistols and i thought i understood what the punk movement was, but i didn’t really get it. after watching decline part 1, i get it.

penelope spheeris takes us into the homes and lives of bands like the germs, black flag, circle jerks, fear and x. we hear these disillusioned young men and women talk about why they do what they do, and then we watch them do it. the way spheeris films the gigs is really immersive – one minute we’re on stage, right up in the face of the singer, and the next we’re down in the pit, being shoved and elbowed and spat on. it’s visceral and energetic and perfect for the type of music the bands are playing.

the music itself is raw and loud, with indecipherable vocals (spheeris occasionally adds helpful subtitles). there’s a clear synergy between what the band members say in their interviews and what they play – it’s those emotions and those experiences expressed through music. there’s a real danger to it as well, not just in the violent reactions of the crowd but also in the performances. when darby crash of the germs (who died shortly after the film was released) is playing onstage it seems like he is about to do himself serious harm at any moment. i’ve seen todd phillips documentary about g.g. allin and was horrified by the extreme and self destructive behaviour of that guy, but here it feels like all punk bands were that close to the edge, it’s just that unlike g.g. allin some of them played better music and had more interesting things to say.

one thing that really struck me was how many women appear in the documentary, both as fans and also in the bands themselves. the germs bass player, lorna doom, exene cervenka from x, alice bag from the alice bag band; they’re as much a part of the scene as any of the men in the bands. i don’t know why this surprised me, i suppose i’d always thought of punk as a guy thing, which is partly why i’d never been that into it, but seeing all these women on stage shouting angry vocals and playing angry music with as much ferocity as the men was really inspiring.

by contrast, there are no female band members in the decline of western civilization part 2, the metal years. when you watch the two films back-to-back the excesses of the fame-obsessed wannabe rockstars who feature in part 2 seem frivolous and ridiculous in comparison to the ideals of the punks of part 1. in part 1, the punks were expressing raw emotion onstage, and it feels like it meant something to them and to music in general. with metal the music may sound better on a technical and aesthetic level but it’s all about the surface, namely fame, money and sex. spheeris captures this without judgement and i wonder if the film plays differently now than it did in 1988. i also wonder if it would play differently if i were teenage boy.

there’s a frankly ridiculous interview with paul stanley of kiss in which he’s lying in bed surrounded by women in their underwear. this vision of a rockstar at the top of his game is intercut with wannabe rockstars talking about how much they want that lifestyle, over and above anything else. the content of the music never really comes up, except with an anti-metal campaigner who thinks the lyrics are corrupting the country’s youth. there’s a lot of talk about drug additction and alcoholism, with icons like steven tyler and joe perry of aerosmith, alice cooper and ozzy all talking about their troubles with substance abuse. these are people who’ve learnt from their mistakes, but by way of a contrast there’s chris holmes whose alcoholism is quite evident during the interview. all of this just makes the aspirations of the wannabes seem even more misguided. the most interesting point is where the interviewees discuss the androgyny of the typical metal look, but this isn’t covered in depth.

as a document of a period of time in musical history, the metal years is a perfect snapshot and provides some fascinating insight into that world. at the same time, if you’re a metal fan it’s kind of depressing how shallow the music and the performers really are, especially in contrast to the bands in part 1. the only band who really come off well are megadeth, and though they are given a chunk of the end of the documentary to show that metal can be political and interesting as well, i kind of wish they had been intercut through the whole thing to provide some balance.

in the decline of western civilization part 3, spheeris revisits the l.a. punk scene and after the somewhat alienating extremes of part 2 this feels like a homecoming. the interesting thing about part 3 is that it’s ultimately not about music at all. spheeris pulls together a group of misfit l.a. kids referred to as ‘gutterpunks’. they are all that remains of the punk movement that she filmed in part 1, despite most of them not even being alive at the time that film was released. still, the gutterpunks embody the punk aesthetic way more than any of the bands featured in the first film. they live on the streets, getting by one day at a time, not because they have to necessarily but because they want to. inspired by the music of bands like naked aggression and litmus green they’ve rejected the standards of ‘normal’ society and decided that this is how they want to live.

except what spheeris reveals over the course of the film is that maybe these kids aren’t the free-spirited rebels they appear to be. through interviews with the punks she discovers that nearly all of them are alcoholic and most came from broken families, abusive parents or had some kind of traumatic incident that led them to this point. these are people society has rejected, and they have nowhere else to go but the streets. is there a certain nobility and integrity to the way they live? of course there is, but there’s a darkness that comes with that too. it’s this darkness that we’re left with at the end of the film with a rather shocking coda that puts everything that came before it into perspective.

all three of these films are fascinating in their own right, but together they form a complete picture of what happens when youth revolts, the good and the bad. in some ways the title loses it’s irony when the films are watched together. there certainly is a decline, from the power and courage of the punks in part 1 to the sell outs and wannabes of part two who have exchanged whatever power they may have had for a piece of the american dream. then there are the gutter punks of part three, who have all of the idealism but none of the power because the music isn’t theirs anymore. as i fill up a spotify playlist with music from parts 1 and 3, one thing becomes clear - for better or worse, the music belongs to all of us now.

i return to my opening statement – what i think about these films is unimportant. spheeris is a genius, all three documentaries are amazing, you need to own this set.

the decline of western civilization complete box set will be released on dvd and blu-ray on 31st august 2015

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

the town that dreaded sundown (1976)

have you ever wondered what it would look like if you took jason voorhees from friday 13th part two and put him into a police procedural with realist/documentary elements reminiscent of zodiac, along with some peckinpah-style slo-mo action and the occasional moment of broad comedy? because that’s kind of what this is.

the town that dreaded sundown is based on a series of unsolved murders that occurred in bowie county, texas in 1946. the film fictionalises some of the events and moves the location to texarkana, arkansas, but the story is roughly the same and follows the attempts of a small town police force to apprehend a vicious and calculating serial killer.

there are a number of interesting aspects to discuss here, but most prominent is where it sits in horror film history. the film was made in 1976, two years before halloween and two years after black christmas (widely regarded as the first real slasher film). given how early in slasher history it was made it’s amazing how much typical slasher iconography is on display here. we have a seemingly unstoppable masked killer, long scenes of torture and murder and increasingly bizarre and inventive methods of killing people. the murder scenes would be at home in any of the friday 13th or halloween films and it seems that in some ways this film was a bigger influence on the genre than the more infamous titles. the murders even span the entire evolution of the slasher film, moving from the basic (shooting someone with a gun) to the brutal (we thankfully don’t see it, but one of the victims is described as being covered in bite marks) to the just plain weird (stabbing someone by playing a trombone with a knife attached to the end). yes, there is a scene in this film in which someone is killed by a trombone. it is worth seeing for this scene alone.

the police procedural aspect of the film also works really well, following a young deputy sheriff (andrew prine) as he teams up with a seasoned texas ranger (ben johnson) to catch the killer. the film really captures the desperation and futility of their task, trying to catch a killer in a town surrounded by countryside with only the basic policing methods of the time at their disposal. they do at one stage consult a criminal psychologist for a profile on the killer and are basically told that they will never catch him. added to this is a deadly serious narration which heightens the gravity of the situation and highlights the plight of a population scared to leave their houses after dark.

what doesn’t work as well are the occasional attempts at humour, usually at the expense of hapless police officer ‘sparkplug’ played by the director, charles b. pierce. pierce isn’t the problem exactly, and in a different film the scenes of his terrible driving or getting irate with people trying to report crimes might even be funny, but here they really grate against the overall tone. this is a film about a real life serial killer it seems an odd choice to have the scenes of murder and cold, hard police work interspersed with moments of slapstick and absurdity. it reminded me of the comedy moments in the last house on the left, another rather grim film with awkward comedic interludes. maybe it was a seventies thing?

overall though the misjudged attempts at humour don’t detract from what is a fascinating and suspense-filled horror film. there are some genuinely terrifying moments alongside some genuinely exciting ones and the cast really do a great job at selling the authenticity. in a way it’s the perfect crossover film, because there are enough cool horror moments for slasher fans but these are balanced out by the police procedural elements. as with all eureka releases the picture looks great and there are some nice extras including a commentary and cast interviews. if you’re interested in checking out a more obscure but essential piece of cinema history this is certainly worth watching.

eureka entertainment release the town that dreaded sundown will be released in dual format (blu-ray and dvd) on 24th august 2015

Saturday, 8 August 2015

dancing with crime

an army veteran takes a job as a cab driver after the war and becomes so enraged with the crime and social injustice he sees on the streets that he decides to take action. sound familiar?

dancing with crime opens with the reunion of two world war two veterans who have returned to london to move on with their lives after the war. ted peters (richard attenborough) has taken a job as a taxi driver and plans to marry his dancer girlfriend, joy (sheila sim). ted's friend, dave robinson (bill rowbotham), has become involved with a criminal gang operating out of a nightclub. not long after the two reunite, dave is killed by the gang he works for and ted makes it his mission to ensure the murderer is brought to justice.

for what seems like a fairly obvious storyline, i actually found dancing with crime to be full of surprises and unexpected changes in the narrative direction. for example, the film opens with dave attempting to recruit ted into the gang and at first it seems like that's the line the film will follow; that ted facing the financial pressures of getting married in post-war britain starts to work for dave and is slowly corrupted by a life of crime. except dave is killed and then the film changes direction. now it's a revenge story with one man taking on those responsible for his friend's death. except he's not one man, he also involves his girlfriend in the proceedings and in some ways she becomes more valuable to the investigation than ted is. so now it's a detective story with a young woman taking a dancing job at a night club owned by gangsters, trying to uncover a murder whilst also keeping her true intentions a secret. the fantastic thing about this film is that it's all those stories, all within an eighty minute running time.

there are more surprises in store when ted is attacked by the gang. suddenly, this mild-mannered taxi driver is throwing kicks and punches like a ufc fighter. the choreography is a bit lacking, but the fights in the film do have a rough, choppy style that adds a bit of unexpected realism, especially when it's richard attenborough delivering most of the punches. attenborough plays ted peters as the ultimate boy scout, loyal to his friends to the last moment no matter what dave got himself caught up in. he is also surprisingly quick to put his girlfriend, joy, into the line of fire, jumping on the opportunity to have her work in the nightclub as soon as it arises.

naturally, it was joy's storyline i enjoyed the most and that i found the most complex. does she take the job in the seedy nightlclub simply to help out her boyfriend, or because she needs the money or both? her friendship with one of the other dancing girls suggests she is not completely unaware of this world and the danger she puts herself in seems far worse than any of the situations ted encounters. at least ted has the military training to protect him while joy is in real danger almost every scene she is in. i found the courage and independence of this character fascinating, given that the film was made in 1947. then again, the war was an empowering time for women so maybe it was not as surprising then as it seems now.

all the actors in the film are great but for me the standout performance is bill rowbotham as dave. rowbotham seems like the prototype for the contemporary cockney geezer and someone who would not seem out of place in an early guy ritchie film. the energy he has in his early scenes is breathtaking and the film really misses it when he's gone, although maybe that adds to the gravity of his murder.

overall, i really enjoyed dancing with crime and it's certainly an entertaining way to spend eighty minutes of your time.

dancing with crime will be released on dvd by simply media on 17th august 2015

Thursday, 6 August 2015

the burning

not that one.

the burning tells the story of a mysterious stranger (gael garcia bernal) who pledges to help a farmer's daughter (alice braga) avenge her father's death and protect her land from some very bad men.

if you have ever seen a western, or a revenge film or any combination of the two you will have already seen a variation of this film. bernal is the man with no name, of possibly supernatural origin that suggests he is more high plains drifter/pale rider than the outlaw josey whales. braga is a typically feisty female lead (so of course there is an obligatory sexual assault that almost made me switch of) who does at least get in on the action towards the end, the villains are typically villainy, and it ticks all the narrative beats at all the right moments, as you would expect. and yet, it manages to do all this in a way that feels profound, contemplative and at times even fresh.

it achieves this in a couple of ways, firstly in the script. there isn't one. i mean, obviously there is, even silent movies had scripts, but here there is barely any dialogue at all. so if you're one of those crazy people who struggles with subtitled films you have nothing to worry about here - there are about ten lines of dialogue in the whole thing and you can probably cope with that. what we get in place of dialogue are amazing, luscious, narrative visuals. i'm a huge werner herzog fan so i'm all for a good south american jungle movie and there is certainly a lot of jungle on display here. this is one of those films that really exudes what it's like to be in the location, in that the sounds, smells and sensations of being there really come out of the way it's shot. it's a beautiful film to look at and the filmmakers know it, so they give the audience more than enough opportunities.

the actors are great, particularly bernal who really carries the film. he does a good job playing the action hero and despite the fact that most of the bad guys tower over him he really convinces he can take them. he also plays the shane card really well, holding off on a violent response until totally necessary. braga provides good support in a fairly thankless role, but for me the real star was the mono-syllabic bad guy played by claudio tolcachir. we never find out anything about the bad guys really, only that they've been doing this for a while, and in a way they're almost like the predators in the jungle - animals acting on pure instinct. tolcachir does add a certain world-weariness to his role and comes a across as someone you do not want to mess with. he steals every scene he's in with his silence and in a film that's pretty much silent anyway, that's a real achievement.

the burning is paced like an art film. there are huge stretches of silence, even when characters are talking to each other, which they do on very rare occasions. for that reason it is actually quite shocking and surprising when the violence happens. while it becomes a full on western in the final act, the first big fight scene is more rambo than rawhide. bernal's character sets traps and stalks his prey through the jungle, throwing spears and taking out a small army while remaining unseen. the final battle is pure leone, complete with the obligatory close-ups and shades of morricone in the score. this contrast between slow-paced environmentally-concerned art film and derivative action movie is an odd juxtapostion, with the action almost undermining any message or theme the film attempts to deliver on the destruction of the environment or what men will do for greed.

ultimately it was the contrasting styles that didn't work for me. whenever the film feels like it's approaching something interesting, it undermines itself with a shot or a moment that's throwback to something we've seen a hundred times before. if this were a low-budget action movie these moments of homage would seem at home, but here they are jarring and distracting. i can't believe i'm saying this, but i would have been more satisfied with a film in which no one was shot, because i feel like there is a great film here that's overshadowed by the legacy of a thousand much better westerns that did it first.

the burning is definitely worth a watch - it's pretty to look at, the actors are great in it and there are some interesting ideas at play. at the same time, it's kind of throwaway and feels at times like a wasted opportunity to do something truly profound with an amazing location.

arrow films release the burning on dvd and blu-ray 10th august 2015

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

jet storm

a man walks onto a plane with a bomb and threatens to blow it up in order to take revenge on a world he no longer cares for. if released today it would be considered dark and controversial. if released in the 1980s it would be die hard on a plane. but this is 1959, the man with the bomb is richard attenborough and the film is jet storm.

ernest tilley (attenborough) boards a plane from london to new york after strapping a bomb to the wing. he does this because he has discovered the man who killed his daughter in a drunk driving incident several years earlier will be travelling on that flight. but tilley isn't interested in killing one man, he wants to take out the whole plane because he wants revenge on the society that allowed this man to exist. tilley announces his attentions when the plane is in the air and it's up to the captain, (stanley baker) to figure out a way to stop him, before the passengers take matters into their own hands.

while jet storm features some tense moments, particularly in the final act, this isn't a typical thriller-on-a-plane movie. tilley is essentially conducting a social experiment - he wants to see how quickly our society falls apart under threat of imminent destruction. as such, the plane is populated by people from all walks of life - an elderly woman, a married couple with an 8 year old child, a middle-aged widow and a couple going through a divorce among others. as the plane is on the way to new york there are a few american characters onboard too. then there is the captain and his crew. as a snapshot of late-fifties society (or at least those in 1950s society able to fly to new york) it works for the purposes of tilley's experiment. one by one, we see the more paranoid passengers crack and soon there are two factions on the plane - those who wish to solve the problem through negotiation and those who wish to solve it through violence. in setting up the story like this, the film becomes a timeless essay on terrorism and how we handle it that still feels relevant now, perhaps even more so.

however, not every aspect of the film seems timeless, and in fact the captain and the passengers' response to tilley's threat is astounding compared to today's high security air travel. the passengers actually speculate over whether tilley could be carrying a gun and discuss the consequences of that, which suggests that boarding a plane with a gun in 1959 would actually be a fairly straightforward undertaking. tilley isn't even searched until some time after he announces his plot, and earlier we see him plant the bomb in full view of the passengers and crew. this is certainly a different world to the one we live in now, although in other ways it's strangely similar.

the cast do a great job with the script, with even the minor characters managing to suggest so much about their lives in a few choice lines of dialogue. attenborough is great as the deranged tilley, managing to retain enough humanity to make us sympathise with him despite his actions. that said, his performance does wander into pantomime crazy on occasion, but this does provide a nice contrast to the restraint and subtlety of stanley baker's performance as the captain.

together these performances enhance what is ultimately a story about human frailty that concludes with a revelation that is both reassuring and terrifying. tilley is ultimately shown up to be an overgrown child, with a childlike view of the world that doesn't take in the complexity of the human experience. on one hand, this makes him more open to reason, but at the same time it gives him the potential to do great harm. as comment on terrorism, this seems eerily prescient.

whatever you make of the themes of the film, jet storm is a neat, contained thriller that races by at great pace with some nice moments of drama and tension along the way and can certainly hold its own against more contemporary thrillers.

simply media will be releasing jet storm on dvd on 17 august 2015