Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Crap Film Night

The other night, me and my friends Chris and Lewis, who joined me for Inside Llewyn Davis on Monday, came together at Chris' house for a wee film night. Our intentions were to watch the very worst films we could find, for the laugh factor more than anything. Terrible films reach a section of the funny bone intentional comedy films often miss, and I often watch them for the sheer joy of picking apart every individual calamity of continuity, plot, accuracy and production (see Plan 9 From Outer Space).

The movies we had chosen concerned two of the most dangerous organisations in recent history: al-Qaeda and the Nazis. When a studio or director doesn't want precious running time to be taken up by crafting a back story for their villain rather than action, they'll often resort to using an established baddie who people already hate for reasons that don't need to be explained in the film, so they can get around to shooting their limbs off as quickly as possible. These two films actually do this doubly, the first by having a zombie al-Qaeda and the second by having Nazi alien invaders from the dark side of the moon. Scary stuff. Our night started with Chris' DVD of John Lyde's 2012 horror Osombie.

Osombie (2012)

This gritty documentary recounts the events following the US Navy Seals' killing of Osama bin Laden in May 2011. The world knows all too well the story of bin Laden's zombie insurgent army who rose to avenge him in the years following his death, and the story of the crack team of NATO special forces (here played by lookalikes of Colin Farrell, Amanda Seyfried, Jamie Hyneman from Mythbusters and Keanu Reeves in 47 Ronin) who were sent to Afghanistan-on-Sea to fight back. The director and funders clearly, correctly, thought that there was no better way to honour the memory of the hundreds of thousands of people who have died in 9/11 and the subsequent, ongoing War on Terror than to tell this tale. Good on them, that's what I say.

Osombie follows what happened when this crack team, given as much ammo as they could ever need, the most ridiculously unsuitable weapons they could think of, and orders to show off as much as they possibly can when killing their targets, stumbled across Hilary Swank in the desert (here played by a lookalike, of course) and joined her on her search for her conspiracy theorist brother Derek (here played by Crocodile Dundee with a beard), who holds the apparently outlandish belief that bin Laden has returned from the dead, and who wishes to kill him himself. I found myself close to tears when, completely unexpectedly, Derek turns out to be the one to kill Osama at the end, finally realising his dream (I decided it wasn't even worth putting a spoiler warning in there).

And if you, like myself, are a massive fan of cliches, Osombie is your dream movie. Colin Farrell rips his shirt off if he ever gets the opportunity; Amanda Seyfried is a supposed tomboy nicknamed 'Tomboy' who actually has a crush on, over the course of the film, just about every other member of the group; and 47 Ronin is a joker nicknamed 'Joker', who poignantly tells a final shite joke in his dying moments. Who would have thought that a film with such a ridiculous premise could be so outstandingly predictable?

So well done, Osombie, for actually managing to insult the memory of one of the most hated human beings who has ever lived.

Iron Sky (2012)

Lewis had been mentioning this movie all evening, as he had a DVD of it at home. After searching Netflix and finding no genuinely bad movies (as in fun bad, not just bad bad; see Queer Duck below), we decided it was worth walking round the corner to his house in order to grab it and have a watch. The premise is simple enough. In 1945, the defeated Nazis fled to the moon and have spent their time educating Aryan children in all their nasty Nazi ways. Their careful hiding place is discovered by a pair of American astronauts, and *havoc ensues* when they decide to revisit Earth to spread their Nazi message.

What sets Iron Sky apart from a film like Osombie is its implicit self-awareness. It knows exactly how preposterous it is, and actually employs that preposterousness to its own advantage, using it to emphasise a surprisingly potent political subtext. Obviously, there are some parts to it that are plain stupid, such as the black astronaut who the Nazis turn Aryan using an 'albinism serum' in order to make him palatable. But then you've got the US president (a clear parody of Sarah Palin) listening intently to a Nazi ambassador's description of their one-world ideology, before reeling it off to her cheering, adoring nation... ouch. By the end, it's clear that the film is even more anti-USA than it is anti-Nazi Germany, which is interesting. Does raise a few valid points, and there's a fantastic shot-by-shot throwback to 'that' scene in Downfall.

Nevertheless, nobody has ever bought Iron Sky on DVD for its political message. On the cover, it's a Nazi bashing science fiction movie riddled with explosions, ironic humour and careless offensiveness. On those points, it could be argued that it's not the film most people set out to watch. What it is is one of the more surreal viewing experiences in my life.

(As a sidenote, it turns out that the original idea of Nazis from the moon isn't as original as you'd hope, too. Read this.)

Queer Duck: The Movie (2006)

This was one we came across during our search through Netflix to find the worst films we could. Chris typed in the letter Q into 'Search', and this is what popped up. We all glanced at each other and immediately put it on. The title sequence was hysterical. It was the hardest any of us had laughed for ages, out of sheer disbelief and wonder. Then, when that ended, we lasted for about a minute before turning it off. The basic premise is, there's this gay duck, and he has gay friends. Jokes are squeezed out of this premise like a puppy going through a mangle, and the results are just as funny. It's the epitome of a one-joke idea, and yet they run with it for the full feature-length. Nae gid.

Crimson Tide (1995)

Well, okay. By midnight we had got tired of bad movies, and decided to try out one of the many incredibly brilliant films on Netflix. When we scrolled past Crimson Tide, I piped up, since I saw wee clips of it a couple of years ago and I'd been wanting to see the full thing ever since. It has Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman in it, and it's a Cold War thriller about the battle for leadership aboard (within?) a nuclear submarine.

We found ourselves sitting on the edges of our seats for half the film. It's sweaty, cramped and fantastically intense, with the responsibility for a nuclear war between the USA and Russia as the stake. When a broken message comes through to the sub that could either be ordering the immediate launch of nuclear missiles or the retraction of them. The sharply logical and cautionary Hunter (Denzel) presumes the latter, and refuses to allow his impulsive superior Captain Ramsey's orders to fire. As the crew decide who to trust, things get more claustrophobic, more intense and even sweatier. It's concerning, suggesting that the fate of millions of people could rest on whether one person blindly makes the right decision, or blindly makes the wrong one. And it's hardly far from possible. As the opening title card chillingly reminds us:

"The three most powerful men in the world:
The President of the United States of America
The President of the Russian Republic
And the captain of a United States ballistic missile submarine."

Luckily, all the uncertainty and fear of the Cold War is over now. Well, is it? As Tony Scott shows us here, as long as there are short-sighted warmongers, the possibility for disaster is always on the doorstep, and god knows we don't have a shortage of them in the world. Just thank your lucky stars that bin Laden's finally been taken out for good.

Follow me on Twitter: @crunro

Sunday, 2 February 2014

A Week of Coen

As those who know me well know well, I have quite a large soft spot for the Minnesotan film makers the Coen brothers. The dark, idiosyncratic humour the brothers share just appeals to me, and in their more serious turns their sharp focus on deeply complex characters is compelling. Anyway, a week or so I decided to watch my DVD of Raising Arizona, their second feature, for no other reason than I'd never watched it before and I suddenly had time. As it turned out, this was the first of three Coen films I'd end up watching that week, with The Big Lebowski and Inside Llewyn Davis, their newest, following not long after.

Raising Arizona (1987)

As the brothers' second feature, the fast-paced comedy Raising Arizona is a fun opportunity to try and catch the beginnings of the many hallmarks that appear in their films. The Coens are more devoted to a certain number of hallmarks than your average directors, as if they have a few lucky charms they can rely on to make the film a success. These include the actors John Goodman, John Turturro and Frances MacDormand (Joel Coen's wife), as well as their use of quirky characters, southern accents, recorded music and long speeches (such as the one that opens The Big Lebowski, or the ones that end No Country For Old Men and Fargo). Raising Arizona ticks five of these boxes.

Nicolas Cage, the man who does mental like nobody else, stars as Hi McDunnough, a small-time criminal who, after being caught and released many times, falls in love with Ed, the police photographer who takes his mugshot after every arrest. They end up getting married and, after discovering Ed is unable to have kids and being turned down at every adoption agency in town, Hi manages to steal a baby from a local unpainted furniture magnate. It's never going to end well, and it doesn't. As wacko after wacko enters their lives, Hi and Ed struggle to keep the child in their undeserved possession. It's a yarn with such ridiculous imagination it's difficult to not get swept away with it. When it comes round to one of the strangest chases in cinema history, it's clear that the Coens must have had a whale of a time creating it.

And it is the Coens' film. In a well-known anecdote, Cage said he would constantly suggest new ideas for the character of Hi or for the movie, only for them to be smashed down by Joel or Ethan. They have a very clear idea of what the movie's going to look like, and you can't blame them for not wanting interference when the story's this complicated and winding. It's the sort of thing I wish I could write, the cinematic equivalent of taking a line for a walk. You just come up with the original premise, then run with any ideas that come into your head, no matter how ridiculous they get, until you reach a satisfying conclusion. It's something they do incredibly well, and it's just as much fun to watch as it would be to write.

The Big Lebowski (1998)

I know, I have written a full post about this one before, but the fact remains that every time I come back to it, which is not as often as I'd like, I'll stumble across something new or notice something I hadn't before which reveals a little more about the supremely unique plot of The Big Lebowski. I came back to it this week for the saddest of reasons: the shocking and untimely death of the great Philip Seymour Hoffman, who plays The Big Jeffrey Lebowski's assistant Brandt in the movie. The best tribute to the man's huge talent I could think of was to watch and enjoy his performance in this, one of my very favourite movies.

Like Raising Arizona but better, The Big Lebowski takes an even more trivial thing, namely an intruder relieving himself over the rug of a man called The Dude, and uses it as a catalyst to set in motion a Rube Goldberg machine of unconventional madness. There is a spark that lights in the opening scenes and continues until the closing credits roll. The imagination of it is startling, and I'd be hard pressed to think of a film I've ever enjoyed more. Anyway, if you want to read more about what I think of The Big Lebowski, check out the post I wrote a few months back. There, that's saved some time.

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

This was the third time I tried to see this film. The first Saturday, my friend Michael couldn't find the time to come with me. A week later, my friend Chris came along as well. We first checked the Vue, but the times were too late. We then checked the Filmhouse, but the ideal times I found turned out to be for two week's time. We visited the Cameo, but they had sold out, and the Odeon weren't showing it at all. So, we ran across Edinburgh to the Dominion cinema at Morningside, where they told us that the film reel of Llewyn Davis hadn't arrived on time, so they had to push back the showing of it another week. At this point, we had run out of cinemas, so we retired to a pizza place and tried again on Monday, when two more friends, Lewis and Connor, came along to see the film at the Cameo again, where they let us in because we'd ordered the tickets. I was glad I did, because the Cameo has incredibly comfortable seating.

And, of course, Inside Llewyn Davis did not disappoint. The film opens with Oscar Isaac's pitch-perfect Davis performing to a packed bar in Greenwich Village, New York. As with every other song in the movie, the Coens just let it run for the entire length, allowing the cinema audience to become the crowd listening. The soundtrack is the movie, the movie is the soundtrack. Every tune is given the directors', and the audience's, full attention, and there is no other music that isn't performed in front of the camera. It may just prove to be one of my favourite soundtracks of all, in fact. Michael went home and bought the album immediately.

As vital as the music is to the story of folk musicians and the fickle world of the music industry, the tale of Llewyn Davis remains compelling independently. It's a melancholy picture, emphasised by the dark-green, brown and wet cinematography of Bruno Delbonnin, following the singer's journey around the Eastern United States over the course of a week. As the people around him win recording contracts and fame, Davis refuses to comply to the advice of others when they suggest he finds someone to perform with. He sleeps on the couches of people he is barely friends with, he is temperamental and blunt, and yet your heart breaks when a record producer responds to his soulful and pained performance with, 'I don't see any money here'.

Success is a reward which is seldom earned without compromise. As Davis walks around the wintry city, guitar case in one hand and symbolic cat in the other, he sees compromise as an insult to his former singing partner, who jumped off the George Washington Bridge. He doesn't enjoy the folk singing life, he sees it as the only career choice he can make that stops him from the horror of merely 'existing'. His problem is, the music world doesn't like him either, and so he is destined to keep moving between friends' apartments forever. Like a rolling stone. He will only ever achieve if he lets go of his old life, but perhaps he's missing all these opportunities on purpose, punishing himself and constantly reminding himself of how useless he is alone now his only partner is gone forever.

It really is an incredible and beautiful film. Make a point of going to see it if you haven't yet. It serves as another reminder of the genius and skill of the Coen brothers, and I can't wait to see what comes next from the two filmmakers who never seem to come down from the top of their game.

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