Sunday, 26 July 2009

Vanishing Point

Title: Vanishing Point
Director: Richard C. Sarafian
Released: 1971
Staring: Barry Newman, Cleavon Little, Dean Jagger
Rating: 5 / 5
Plot: Disgraced cop turn delivery driver Kowalski (Newman) is challenged to get a Dodge Challanger to San Francisco in 15 hours. So with a handful of speed and a full tank of gas, the race is on.

Review: Finding myself in my current mood, I think it’s safe to say that sometimes it’s better to go back and look at the things which inspired you to begin with, especially if your like myself a critic of some aspect of popular culture, trying to make a name for yourself amongst the field of the hundred like minded folks, it can sometimes get you feeling a little jaded in some ways, to the point were you end up like one of those sellout critics, like Harry Knowles or Roger Egbert, sneering down on your chosen genre, as you rain down a bile fuelled hate on the same films you used to have such love for, so to avoid going down that path and to help redirect this blog, back to a more simpler style of film making than I have been looking at with recent reviews, I decided to revisit “Vanishing Point” old favourite of mine from my film going youth, which for some reason never seems to be as fondly remembered by anyone else, which is made all the strange as it’s safe to say it is a genuine cult classic.

Like so many cult classics, “Vanishing Point” wasn’t greeted with the best reception by the critics upon its original release, with a lot of them hating the ending, meaning that it was a film that quickly disappeared, only later finding it’s audience while been shown as a double feature with “The French Connection” (1971), whose main star Gene Hackman had been the first choice to play Kowalski in an ironic twist of fate, but it is a shame really as it is a fantastic film, which moves plot wise almost as fast a Kowalski is driving, with the plot kept purely to a bare minimum, with only the occasion diversion from the action, with are either via the Super Soul radio broadcasts, flashbacks to Kowalski’s past or one of the numerous encounters which Kowalski has along the way, which vary from Gay would be muggers to a desert prospector (Jagger) and a especially memorable scene involving a naked girl on a motorcycle, the film constantly finds something new to keep your attention, which is a good thing, as I doubt that Sarafian would have been able to keep the audiences attention, had he turned the film into one 99 minute chase sequence, which is what most audience members will expect going into this movie, but this is not to say that these sequences are neglected, as they still form a hefty chunk of the film, with each sequence working hard to be more exciting and interesting than the last, which isn’t easy when you consider that the majority of the scenery is desert, but thankfully something which is effortlessly achieved here, even though he doesn’t have a great deal of scenery to work with, meaning that it’s also not resorting to the same kinds of tricks which other equally fun chase movies such as “Bullitt” (1968) and “The Driver” (1978) utilised to keep the audience hooked, with their sequences.
The character of Super Soul (Little) is one of the more interesting characters of the piece and while also providing fun diversions from the main story, he acts kind of like a guide, while also bringing a whole new meaning to the phrase “Blind leading the blind” as he guides Kowalski through his radio show, even on occasion appearing to talk directly to him, as he helps him to evade the efforts of the police who are keen to stop him and in many ways it reminded me of the DJ in Walter Hill’s “The Warriors” (1979) and even though he doesn’t know of Kowalski’s reasons for doing what he is doing, he still feels that he must get behind him, turning him into a folk hero as the film progresses, especially as more and more people join the cause, the majority of which are outsiders themselves, judging by how the crowd that gathers outside of his studio is mainly Hippies and Bikers, all of which seemingly sharing Kowalski’s apparent ideals about freedom, which he never once mentions, only saying that he is going to San Francisco, when asked by any of the characters in which he meets along the way.

The ending is kind of a talking point for this film whenever it is mentioned, especially with many seeing it as being a real down ending for which is throughout a pretty upbeat film and true the first time I saw it, I didn’t really like the ending much, which see’s Kowalski dying a fiery death in his car as he crashes into the bulldozer barricade, but it’s upon repeat viewing in which you see the smile he has on his face, just before he crashes that show that he is happy to die doing the one thing he has left, having lost his, both of his racing careers after near fatal crashes, as well as his police career, when he stopped a fellow officer raping a girl, who may or may not be the same girl who is riding the motorcycle naked. It’s driving that is all he has and it seems like he’d rather die doing this than have the one thing he has left being taken from him as well. Still however it is sad to say that some critics still write this ending off, as Sarafian not knowing how to end the film, but it is an ending that produces any number of theories, which even differ amongst the cast and crew of the film.
Soundtrack wise it’s a mixture of soul, rock and an occasional dip into country, which works well here, with even the gospel songs sounding good and all of them providing a nice soundtrack for the desert setting and the roar of the Dodge challenger’s engine.
Even though it is largely unknown “Vanishing Point” is a film defiantly worth seeking out, especially for a lazy afternoon viewing, which is how it is best viewed as it’s not trying to make any serious points, despite often being seen as a reflection of the mood in the United States post-Woodstock, it doesn’t suffer from the problem of looking dated, but avoid the 1997 remake, as there will only be one original version and really when its as good as this, then that is all you need.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

9th Company

Title: 9th Company
Director: Fyodor Bonarchuk
Released: 2005
Staring: Fydor Bondarchuk, Aleksey Chadov, Mikhail Yevlanov, Mikhail Yevlanov, Ivan Kokorin, Artyom Mikhalkov, Konstantin Kryukov, Artur Smolyaninov, Mikhail Porechenkov

Rating: 4 / 5
Plot: Based on the true story of the 9th company, during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980’s, as the young recuits go from boot camp to finally defending hill 3234.

Review: What is it about Russian cinema, which makes it so that nearly every film they make slips under the movie loving masses radar outside of its home country?? I mean personally I can only really name a handful of Russian films and they are all established classics such as “Man with the movie camera” (1929), Battleship Potemkin (1925) and the Night Watch films, so it’s safe to say that this film was another of those films which would have slipped under the radar aswell, had I not stumbled across it on DVD and I’m so glad that I did as“9th Company” is not a film setting out to make a political statement on war, which it seems has become the current trend, for the genre with films such as “Redacted” (2007) nor is it a glorification of war, the kind of boys own adventure films like “The Dirty Dozen” (1967), that featured through out my childhood, but instead it is a film showing war for what it is and paying respect to those who fought in the conflict, so that future generations might have atleast some idea of what they went through and it’s an style best remembered with Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” (1998) which was ultimately bettered by Je-gyu Kang’s “Brotherhood” (2004) and here once again it is a style which is used once more to powerful effect.

Opening with the raw recruits being drafted into boot camp, I couldn’t help but think of Kubric’s “Full Metal Jacket” (1987) which is best remembered for it’s equally brutal boot camp scenes, but it’s safe to say that as daunting and mean as R. Lee Ermey was as Gunnery Sgt. Hartman, he pales when compared to the training regime of Dygalo (Porechenkov) who is might not be as loud as Hartman, but he none the less brutal if not more, with his methods of training the raw recruits, as he rules his regiment of recuits with an iron fist, more than happy to lash out and even on occasion whip them with his belt, with his favourite game to play with them, being to fill their packs with rocks, before forcing them to scramble up a steep hill were another squad awaits to push them back down. This sadistic and bitter streak we are lead to believe coming directly from, his experiences in the field, were he was the sole survivor of his squad, something which it is also hinted at having left him more than a little mentally unstable, especially when combined with his continued rejections, to his applications to be sent back out to fight, with one such memorable scene showing him crying in a field of poppies, which also provides a great metaphor for the friends he has lost to this conflict.
As with “Full Metal Jacket” these boot camp scenes form a large part of the film, accounting for almost half of the running time, but it’s these experiences which the recruits go through together which bonds them closer together, a bond which they carry with them even into the War zone, despite being separated their bond is still as strong when they are later reunited, making them more like brothers than friends, even to the point were they are willing to share the affections of the local girl Belosnezkka (Irina Rakhmanovoa), who they frequently refer to as Snow White.
Some viewers might not like the fact that none of the characters can be classed as the lead, especially with Bonarchuk spending an equal amount of time with each of the characters, preferring to view them as a unit, rather than a group of individuals, which also makes it all the harder to know which of them will be living long enough to see the end of the conflict, as Bonarchuk fearlessly kills off characters, with the climatic battle for hill 3234, being especially noteworthy as I felt like I was living through the final episode of “Space Above and Beyond” again, as I watched characters that I genuinely cared about being killed in front with little or no mercy, as they attempt to hold back the seemingly endless tide of Afghan rebels, to the point were I was almost certain that this film wasn’t going to end well. It is also worth noting that Bonarchuk has also chosen not to make a statement, with this film as to which side was in the wrong with the conflict, outside of the characters comments in regards to the failings of their government, while also including scenes which show the recruits, being lectured on the motives and beliefs of their enemy, something which is almost unseen within the genre, outside of the usually misguided and stereotypical views which characters will tend to carry with them, as their justification, for what they are doing.
Great effort it appears has been taken to help draw the viewer into the world of this particular conflict, not only with the military hardware on display, but also with the attention to detail in their surroundings and uniforms, which only help suck you further in, while unlike the previously mentioned “Brotherhood” and “Saving Private Ryan” the grim reality of war has been toned down, though not so far as to show how dirty and violent the conflict was, but instead losing the voyeuristic scenes of lost limbs and arterial sprays, though skilfully managing to not lose any of the required power of what you are witnessing, especially during the climatic battle, which at one point turns into a real blood and snot style battle, as the battle suddenly becomes a lot more personal, as it breaks down to hand to hand combat, as the Soviet forces desperately attempt to hold their position.

The downside sadly to this film though is the running time, which left me thinking that it could have easy had, some time shaven off as in it’s present state it feels slightly bloated in places, especially in the middle sections, were at times it feels like the same points are continuously being looped and that the film is failing to gain any ground, as it dwells on uninteresting scenes which seems all to similar to earlier ones.

“9th Company” proves once more that Russian cinema is still producing memorable, as well as moving films and that it is also more of a shame that more of it’s film output is not being seen. In the meantime Bonarchuk has created a film worthy of standing with the already established classics of the war genre and is a film that I can only highly recommend to fans of the genre.

Saturday, 18 July 2009

Sukiyaki Western Djano

Title: Sukiyaki Western Django
Director: Takashi Miike
Released: 2007
Staring: Hideaki Ito, Koichi Sato, Yusuke Iseya, Masanobu Ando, Takaaki Ishibashi, Quentin Tarantino, Sato Koichi

Plot: A Lone unnamed gunman (Ito) rides into the town of Yuta, where two rival gangs, the Genji and Heike who are currently battling for control of the town and the treasure which it hides.

Review: I have to be honest, that I was kind of intrigued to see this film. Not only due to the fact that it is a Japanese Western, an idea which hasn’t really been seen since the 60’s with films such as “The Fort of Death” but I especially didn’t want to pass on seeing one directed by Takashi Miike, who the majority of his films I have loved since I first saw “Audition” which along with “Battle Royale” and “Ringu” would spearhead the revival of interest in Asian cinema and which upon my first viewing not only left me shocked, but also keen to hunt down more of his work, which has over recent years helped him build a strong cult following, especially with western audiences and in many ways helping to lead the way for equally controversial directors such as Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo: The Iron Man) and Yoshihiro Nishimura (Tokyo Gore Police) to gain their exposure to Western audiences.

“Sukiyaki Western Django” however is a rare break from Miike’s usual themes, seeing how it is not only lighter in subject matter, but has heavy leanings towards comedy, with a sense of humour that makes it easy to compare this film to the films of Stephen Chow (Shoalin Soccer) and it's genre that Miike has rarely explored, with the only film that really springs to mind being The Happiness of the Katakuris” and this certainly caught me off guard when I sat down to watch it, aswell the fact that this is also his first film, to shot completely in English.
Opening with the first of Tarantino’s two appearances in this film as Ringo, who is not only the sole western gunslinger in this movie but he’s also one with a tale to tell. Its clear not only from this opening sequence, but also from the painted backdrops (which are used to help, separate the flashbacks from the main story) and the kung fu style dialogue that this certainly by no means, going to be a western in the traditional sense. Still this slightly surreal opening is a gentle welcome to this less than traditional western, something of luxury when it comes to Miike, who is often happier throwing his audience head first into his films and allowing them to figure things out for themselves, as he bombards them with a stimulus overload of vivid imagery, which was especially the case with “Dead of Alive” which proudly still holds the title for having one of the most shocking openings committed to film, but none of this is to be found here, much like most of his usual themes, which has been so familiar with his previous work, such as extreme violence and sexual taboo’s, which is no where to be found here. True this might upset some of the fan base, the majority of which no doubt, having been first drawn to his work for these themes especially, but it certainly does this film no harm as he quickly moves from this surreal opening to the main story, with Miike wasting little time as the film bounces along at a steady pace, taking the time to introduce us to the two gangs who are very radically different with the Genji lead by the handsome and calculating Minamoto no Yoshitsune (Iseya) who operate using their own version of the samurai philosophy, which is quoted to them constantly by Yoshisune, while they choose to dress themselves in white and weld samurai swords, while their counterparts the brutal Heike lead by the ruthless Kiyomori (Koichi), whose personal philosophy for his gang is taken from Shakespeare’s “Henry VI” comparing the war of the roses to their own personal fight, especially more so, seeing how the red’s won. So convinced that this is fate, he even goes as far as changing his name to Henry. It could have been very easy to get caught up in just the activities of these two gangs, but Miike still manages to find the time to introduce the varied town residents, including the split personality sheriff (Teruyuki Kagawa) who often argues with himself in high pressure situations, providing numerous humorous moments throughout the film, much like the local tavern madam Ruriko (Momoi Kaori) who might hide more than a few secrets of her own.
Despite setting out to create a Japanese western, Miike still borrows liberally from such landmark Italian Westerns of Sergio Leone, aswell as the “Acid-Westerns” of Alejandro Jodorowsky such as “El Topo” taking the aspects he likes from each, to create his vision which style certainly comparable to Tarantino, who readily draws influence from the genres he loves, though more jaded critics would rather pass this off as plagiarism, rather than seeing it merely as a way of paying homage to the films, which paved the way and giving the film junkies another reason to get excited as they try to figure out where each inspiration was drawn from.

As I stated earlier in this review, while watching you can help but notice that it contains a similar sense of humour to the films of Stephen Chow, something that only continues to grow as the audience grows more accustomed to this bizarre story setting, but it never threatens to overpower the story turning it into a farce, with the moments of humour being added subtly through out such as Kiyomori hiding behind his more portly henchmen, once the shooting starts for their bullet stopping potential, something that is taken to another level by the time the final shootout begins and he is using a line of six of his henchmen, as his own personal shield. It does feel kind of weird seeing humour in a Miike film, especially seeing how the humour in his films, is usually as dark as his story setting, but here it never once feels forced or out of place and marks yet another step taken by Miike, much to the distain of some of his fans, towards more mainstream film making, which several of his more recent projects have seen, as he begins to tone down the same dark delights he used with just glee in his early films, for more subtle shocks and projects such as this.

"Sukiyaki Western Django" won’t be for everyone especially, those viewers who choose to bitch over the spoken English, which the standard it’s spoken at tends to vary between actors, but seeing how the majority of the actors can’t speak English anyway, it’s kind of a point quibble and it’s still a hundred times better than some of the hack dubbing jobs, which continue to plague translations. Still language issues aside it remains a fun and entertaining film, which never verges on taking itself too seriously, while also being highly accessible for non western fans such as myself.
It’s strange; it’s weird but defiantly worth at least the price of rental and provides a gentle introduction, to the work of probably one of the most exciting directors, currently working in Asian cinema at present.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009


For regular readers of this blog, you will know already about my slightly obsessive love of Chuck Palahniuk and also about abusing my supervisory powers, to have staff rummage through numerous boxes, just so I could get my hands on his latest book “Pygmy”, which I’d been eagerly awaiting since finishing his last novel “Snuff” where Chuck turned his warped world view to the world of pornography and record breaking gangbangs and it’s this view point that he now turns to another popular subject of the moment “Terrorists secretly invading the Homeland” which is the subject of focus for this latest novel, which see’s a dozen exchange students sent from an unnamed totalitarian homeland to America’s Midwest, who are actually Undercover operatives / Terrorists with a plan to pull off something big, with the whole story being seen through the eyes of “Agent Number 67” nicknamed Pygmy due to his size.

The plot as I have already stated in an earlier review is very similar to that of The Simpsons episode “"The Crepes of Wrath" but thankfully these feelings of similarities are only faint, especially seeing how this might be one of his most twisted books yet, as he once again pushes the boundaries of good taste, occasionally taking a step or two over those lines, before walking back rather than throwing himself over the line and into the filthy waters of bad taste, the way that John Waters prefers in his film and it’s a strategy that works well here and helping make the shocking scenes have all the more impact for the reader, which is equally helped by the Naive nature of the title character, who despite performing several shocking acts throughout the book, including sexually assaulting the bully of his host brother, an act which doesn’t appear to faze him and what the reader can only assume is, a trait of his training, which appears in flashbacks throughout the novel and when compared to his other operatives, this Naïve like quality is only emphasised further.
The bathroom rape scene, which shockingly happens quite close to the start of the novel, is something that will no doubt have the fair weather fans, rushing their copies back to the shop and almost feels as if Chuck is issuing you with a challenge to read on or perhaps even warning of things to come, by saying “If you can’t stomach this, then this book isn’t going to be for you”.
The plot is similar in its randomness, to many of Chuck’s other novels which for regular readers might help gloss over, certain plot points which might stand out to the first time reader, such as why the host sister chooses to make a vibrator for her school science project? True it might tie in with an earlier plot point involving the host mother and her obsession with vibrators, who is even throwing vibrator parties in the house basement, which is humorously seen as the evolution from Tupperware parties, both which however felt in a way like leftover research from his previous novel “Snuff”.
Another point which might also stop many (and especially the easy deterred) readers getting into this book, is the style in which Chuck has chosen to write in, which is comparable to the early novels of Irvine Welsh, which had dialogue written they way people talk, requiring the reader to tune their brain into the language being used and the same can be said for “Pygmy” which due to being seen through the eyes of Agent Number 67, means that the story is told using rather unique dialogue, which is described as being “Imgrish” and is a strange mixture of broken English and scientific style view points, which does become easier to read, the further through the novel you get, though I couldn’t say whether this was a representation of his English getting better or my brain managing to work it’s way around the language, it is hard to say honestly. I do believe though that this style of writing has prevented it, from being embraced by the mass market and no doubt the reason, that it hasn’t been seen as a scandalous book that should be taken off sale and pulped, which is what I was expecting when this novel was first announced and a move that continues to keep Chuck as a decidedly cult author. The downside however to choosing to tell the story this way, is that often it can get really confusing as to what is supposed to be happening, especially when Agent Number 67 would rather describe most places, than name what they are and have the reader figure things out for themselves, which often won’t been until you get a page or so into the scene, that your finally twig “Ohh they are at a church”. True it might work to some effect, such as an early scene when the family take him to Walmart, where he proceeds to try and buy assault rifles with little success, but the majority of times I felt that it just didn’t work and caused nothing but frustration, seeing how it’s already not the easiest book to read, thanks to the language being used (and thanks also to screaming kids on the train), but why only add to this confusion and not give the reader a little rock of calm in this storm of confusion?

“Pygmy” isn’t Chucks strongest novel though it is still not his worst, which is an honour held by “Diary” which thankfully this is nowhere near as bad as, for once you get past the mild irritation of adjusting your head to the language, it is still a very readable novel and certainly one that I didn’t have much trouble finishing, though whether this is more to do with my fan boy worship of the author in question, I can’ honestly say, though it remains clear that Chuck is still an author that is still not afraid to challenge himself, to write in yet another style when most established authors would be happy to just keep things simple and appeal to the mass market, though it would seem for the moment, that Chuck is still happy to just write how he does and leave it for the mainstream readers to discover his world for themselves, rather than rely on the hallow praise of daytime TV to drive his sales.
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