Friday, 30 December 2011

Total Cults Podcast #24: Christmas II - The Quickening

Gogol and Trick wring the last vestiges of festivity out of the festive season, and manage to finally answer the rather unpleasant cliffhanger posed by last week's podcast. Who is that Gogol can hear? And is he doing what Trick thinks he's doing? Frankly, the opening few minutes of this one are all a bit fixated with Santa wanking. But there's some stuff about films in there too.

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Total Cults Podcast #23: Christmas

It's CHRISTMAS! So click the title for MP3 goodness with Gogol and Trick's first festive romp. There's discussion about Christmas movies, a cliffhanger ending... And what's that in Gogol's beard?

Monday, 19 December 2011

Total Cults Podcast #22: Greatest Expectations

So, can the weight of expectations just crush a movie? Join Gogol and Trick as they reminisce about the summer of '99, when Gogol got his first real six-string. Well, no, he didn't. But he did go and see The Matrix and Star Wars: Episode One and he's got some horrifyingly controversial feelings to share about that experience.

Click the title of the episode to experience the MP3. DO IT NOW!

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Knock Off (Tsui Hark, 1998)

Knock-off could represent either the nadir of Jean-Claude Van Damme’s career or his highest peak, depending on what you look for in a direct to video action film. It is a film layered so densely with logic-dodging brain punches that it is hard to believe it was written by the same guy who wrote Die Hard and directed by Hong Kong auteur Tsui Hark.

Along with John Woo and Ringo Lam, Tsui Hark was a fundamental figure in the wave of Hong Kong action films that made their way to western shores during the mid-nineties. Despite working primarily in well worn genres, Hark still demonstrated a proclivity for experimentation and innovation. Once Upon a Time in China (Hark, 1991) is ambitious in both scope and narrative while The Blade aka Dao (Hark, 1995) exuberantly uses the ‘shaky-cam’ techniques now so common in modern action cinema, albeit a decade earlier.

Following on from John Woo’s successful (at that point) relocation to America that began with the Van Damme collaboration Hard Target (Woo, 1993), Hark targeted the international market with his own Van Damme collaborations Double-Team (Hark, 1997) and Knock-Off (Hark, 1998).

Hark’s camera moves and frames in a way not too dissimilar to that of Sam Raimi’s. Like Raimi his frenetic, subjective camerawork can serve to elevate material from gritty brutality to an exciting, energetic and delirious dance. This gives a fresh energy to otherwise relatively straight forward subject matter, yet because the subject matter and logic of Knock-Off is so out there in the first place, the application of this style just makes the film all the more ludicrous.

This brings us neatly to the story. Van Damme plays a fashion designer/clothing retailer who, with his new partner played by Rob Schneider (who is by no means the worst thing in this film, which should tell you plenty), attempts to put his past life as a bootlegger behind him. Unfortunately for them, their legitimate products are being intercepted and swapped for cheap knock-offs by Russians (I think) who then sew tiny button-sized explosives into them. Once these explosive jeans have been shipped throughout the world the Russians would have a stranglehold on the entire planet. I watched this film not twenty-four hours before writing this article and I can’t remember for the life of me why the Russians would want to do such a thing. But let's not let a little detail like motivation get in the way of all this fun. The film-makers didn't.

So it is a film about exploding trousers, basically. As the plot unfolds, just about everyone turns out to be either a bad guy or a CIA agent, or both, and a shirtless Van Damme eventually saves the day. Not crazy enough for you? Okay, let me run you through some of the films more inspired moments.

  1. The homo-erotic rickshaw race: During the start of the film Van Damme and Schneider participate in a cross-city rickshaw race. I have no idea why this event takes place, but what I can tell you is that it ends with Schneider slapping Van Damme across the backside with an eel yelling “move that beautiful ass”. I did not make this up.

  2. The kung-fu fighting fashion designer: I do love the ways in which we are led to believe the central characters in some action films can at once end up in a situation completely by accident, yet also somehow have all the required skills to get themselves out of it. Steven Seagal normally plays a cop or an ex-special forces operative, which makes sense. I’m even happy to accept the mysterious bad-ass (whose background is sufficiently shady enough to not rule out the learning of combat skills somewhere) or the everyman, providing it was referenced that said everyman had some kind of interest in martial arts. Van Damme was pushing it with Sudden Death (Peter Hyams, 1995), where he played a karate-fighting fire marshal, but a fashion designer? Seriously? Even assuming that in his counterfeiting days he dealt with some shady characters, I’m not just going to assume that in between making fake Nike’s and cheap purses he learnt to scale walls, somersault, fire handguns and fight like a karate champ. The only overly-macho-for-his-job character to trump this is the investigative fireworks organiser in The Return of the Evil Dead (Amando De Ossorio, 1973) .

  3. The missile in the safe: You are international saboteurs with access to miniature explosives and you want to subtly kill a potential loose end by rigging up something in his safe. Do use you use said explosives? Nope. Instead you rig a FULL SIZED ROCKET PROPELLED MISSILE in the guys' safe that fires into him. The missile then carries him through the air, out of his apartment and across the street exploding into the opposite wall. Clean, efficient and a good way to make it look like an accident. Job well done.

  4. The least subtle safe-house ever: The CIA have travelled to Hong Kong to investigate the exploding trouser plot. Following what I can only imagine is standard operating procedure, they set up their safe-house not in an inconspicuous location, but it in a high-tech base beneath a bloody great national landmark. In this case, under a tourist heavy statue of Buddha.

  5. The least convincing stunt doubles I’ve seen in some time: You hire Van Damme when you want your film to be full of the splits and slow-motion reverse roundhouse kicks. That’s what he is good at. But what if you want to fill your film with backflips, somersaults and the kind of assorted acrobatics synonymous with Hong Kong martial arts cinema (all of which require a completely different physicality and body language)? Recast? Re-choreograph? Or perhaps just hire a completely different stunt double to handle most of the action sequences. As you might presume, this leads to a little inconsistency. With the exception of the final action sequence, which I’ll get to later, every action sequence is horribly disjointed as we cut back and forth between Van Damme and his shorter, lighter and far more acrobatic stunt double.

Add to all this Van Damme’s strangulation of most of the dialogue and Hark’s use of slow-motion, strobing, ghosting, freeze frames and every other trick in the book makes most of the film seem like a montage or drink induced hallucination. It's the kind of film you end up thinking you imagined.

When we arrive at the film’s climatic sequence, however, it threatens to become a competent, and dare I say exciting, action film. The fist and gun fight aboard a cargo ship is directed with a controlled energy and clarity not seen anywhere else in the film. Suddenly all the elements that previously butted heads are now working together. It almost makes one wish the cast and crew had a shot at a real story.

But what we do have is a marvellously insane 90 minutes that does not fail to entertain. In fact, the only thing stopping this from being a masterpiece of unintentional* entertainment is that it is not called Hot Pants.

This is a film I recommend with caution: you are either going to love it for it’s flaws or just plain hate it for them.

*I say unintentional, but I would put money on that some of the creative team, if not the director himself, is just taking the piss.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Total Cults Podcast #21: Animation Special

CLICK THE TITLE ABOVE for another dose of glorious MP3 goodness (yeah, we seem to have stopped bothering with the YouTube versions for a little bit, seeing how pathetic the number of people who listened to them rather than the mp3 was). It's an animation special, and during the course of the episode Gogol and Trick refer to all the clips below...

Monday, 5 December 2011

How Hard Can it Be? - The Punisher and the Big Screen

Marvel have recently been doing very well in translating their characters to the big screen, either through their own studio or in collaboration with others. They are not everyone's cup of tea, yet it's difficult to argue they haven't captured the spirit of the comics and translated potentially problematic characters successfully with very little compromise. A hammer-wielding Norse God? A guy dressed in stars and stripes who throws a shield? A teenager in a red and blue gimp suit swinging around New York? It would not be difficult to make these characters appear un-engaging and utterly ridiculous and yet the creative teams responsible makes the whole process look easy.

So why is it that The Punisher, one of the most uncomplicated and easily translatable characters in the Marvel catalogue, has yet to have a solid film of his own.

And they have made three of the bastards!!!

That's right, The Punisher has had three films made about him and not one of them is entirely successful. I can understand the Fantastic Four being a difficult sell, but The Punisher is hardly high concept. Frank Castle, an ex special forces officer, sees his family murdered by the mob and dedicates his life to fighting street crime. No stretchy arms, no astral projection, no spandex, just a guy and his guns taking out street punks and mob enforcers. The only outlandish(ish) trait he has is that he wears a skull print on his chest.

Surely this is not a concept too hard to handle? Cinema is littered with well made revenge films. Why can't you just make another where the main character wears a skull tee-shirt? Is it really that difficult? It's not as if each of the three attempts are completely without merit though, so to determine what went wrong with each we should really take a closer look.

The Punisher (Mark Goldblatt, 1989)

The first attempt to get The Punisher moving was a vehicle for Dolph Lundgren and is, in my opinion, close to being the most successful of the three.

Only four years after making a splash punching Carl Weathers to death and only his third outing as a leading man, Lundgren surprisingly puts his body away. Gone are the oily flexings synonymous with 80's action cinema, Lundgren instead wears lank hair, pale skin and dark rings around the eyes. He looks like shit, to be honest, and so would you if you lived in a sewer only to come out at night. So although Lundgren doesn't necessarily act, he certainly looks the part. The films biggest success, however, is it's balance. It's an action film thats' just ridiculous enough to be fun yet gritty enough to not come off as camp.

Purists will complains about the lack of chest-skull and the change in the method in which Castle's family die (here it is a car bomb). These changes are a little bewildering, yet the main flaw is that the film just doesn't make much of an impact. Denied a cinema release in most countries, it is what we would now consider a text-book straight to video (well, DVD) action film. Efficient, just brutal enough yet lacking in any kind of ambition.

All in all it's hardly a terrible action film yet by ditching iconography and imagination it never feels truly worthy of being a Punisher movie.

The Punisher (Jonathan Hensleigh, 2004)

Jonathan Hensleigh's attempt is my least favourite of the three. My frustrations arise primarily because there is so much about the film I like, it just never feels like a Punisher movie.

The film plays like a gritty seventies revenge film which is, in my opinion, the best way to handle The Punisher. The action is hardly epic, yet choreographed and shot with energy and clarity. Despite it's grit it is never nasty, balancing humour and violence expertly (the central fight sequence being one of the absolute highlights) and Thomas Jane makes for a potentially engaging Punisher.

The films biggest problem is that as an origin story Frank Castle only truly becomes The Punisher at the end of the film, meaning that for most of the story we have to put up with an intermediate version.

This Punisher decides against using his vast arsenal for the majority of the film and instead opts for making sneaky phone calls and taking incriminating pictures. C'mon, he's The Punisher, not The Photographer. He even tortures a man with a lollypop at one point because he doesn't actually want to hurt him too much. This, in addition to the fact that Thomas Jane seems to be wearing eyeliner kind of smoothes out the rougher edges of the living tank The Punisher is supposed to be.

Some put this down to the tiny budget of the film and that does indeed have an impact. Yet what little money there was could have been spent so much better. In this interpretation it is not merely the wife and kids that are cut down, but Castle's entire extended family are killed in a prolonged action sequence, compete with shoot-outs, car chases and exploding docks. By going for excitement rather than shock the scene loses the required impact and just feels like money that could have been better spent once Castle finally gets to unleash hell as The Punisher.

Then of course there is the cash blown on the climax, where Castle blows up a row of parked cars so that they form a flaming skull when viewed from above. It is a ludicrous moment so pointless (and by this point utterly cliché, having already been done in both the The Crow, Alex Proyas 1994, and Daredevil, Mark Steven Johnson 2003) that you'd think Hensleigh had money to throw away.  

And I haven't even mentioned the fact that he's barely in costume for the film, that everyone seems to know who The Punisher is and where he lives, but rarely try and find him and a whole host of other problems.

Had this film simply been a low budget revenge film I think I could have looked past the problems and focused on whats works, but like Lundgren's this does not service the expectation raised by calling your film The Punisher.

Punisher: War Zone (Lexi Alexander, 2008)

War Zone is everything that Hensleigh's version wasn't to a fault. At it's best it is a gore-filled splatter fest full of great kills and black humour, at it's worst it's approaching Batman and Robin levels of garishness.

Ray Stevenson makes for a great Punisher. He's a lump of death in body armour, rarely out of costume and always packing heat. Despite minimal dialogue Stevenson gives depth to the character and there are moments of laugh out loud Tom and Jerry violence.

But it's just all too much. For every great moment, there is a moment of utter silliness. Take, for example, the opening scene. Castle drops into a mob dinner and begins to efficiently execute everyone at the table with increasingly inventive brutality. But he then decides to leaps onto a chandelier, hang upside down and spin shooting everyone that enters the room in a jump in logic so jarring it would have the creative team behind the Resident Evil films cringing. Why go to all the trouble of putting your actor through special forces training to get a sense of realism if you're then going to have him hanging off a bloody light fitting.

There are times in this film where the colours are over-saturated, the actors are over-acting and the audience is overcome. The whole thing feels like a ruddy-great knee-jerk in response to the criticisms of the last attempt. It just goes too far.

I would say, however, it is the most watchable of the three and great to throw on if you've had a very frustrating day at work.

There are lots to like in these three films, but none of them succeed in being either a straight action film or a gritty revenge film. I can't help but think if you could splurge all three together you might be on the right track.

But The Punisher will not be kept down. The rights are back with Marvel who are rumoured to be readying him for a TV show. Whether it will be good or not will be entirely down to whether they can find the right balance of all the things that make up The Punisher.

How hard can it be?

Friday, 2 December 2011

Total Cults Podcast #20: Freestylin' II - Hitchcock's Piss

Click the title to embark on a glorious MP3 voyage. Yes indeed, it's... um... "Freestylin' II - Hitchcock's Piss"

Now that's a podcast title that'll bugger up our google search keywords.

Once again, Gogol and Trick brave the podcast tightrope walk of talking without a subject. Once again, they discover that the podcast ends up more or less the same as it always does.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Requiem for a Cinema

This is what I remember, although you can't call it a memory.

Poster frames outside. Six frames, left to right. The two central ones are advertising 'Now Showing'. When I try and focus on the one second from the left I can't get a firm image in my head. It might be advertising local businesses. It's certainly not as interesting as the others, which are advertising all sorts of coming attractions. The one furthest to the right is advertising late night shows on Fridays and Saturdays. The posters for the late shows are pretty lurid, and either scare me silly or tempt me with the forbidden depending how old I am at that particular moment. Scanners, Videodrome, Play Misty for Me, Come Play with Me, Lemon Popsicle, Confessions Of.. through to The Witches of Eastwick, Ruthless People and beyond. Movies I'm not allowed to see. By the time I'm old enough to do so, many of them will be quaint relics of another age.. So the power lies in the posters, and for me at least it always will. In the tease, not the strip. Sell the sizzle, not the steak.

Inside, the lobby smells of cigarette smoke, candy and popcorn. An assistant looks out from behind glass, dispensing little numbered tickets depending on what screen I was heading to. The assistant, who much have changed a dozen times over the years but is present in my mind as either a cheerful balding guy or a faintly disapproving middle-aged woman. They ask my age once only (Lethal Weapon 2, 1989) and the rest of the time just check smoking or non-smoking.

Screen One is downstairs. A whole bunch of memories trip over one another as I try and picture the screen. I'm sitting looking at the pillars and the cladding on the walls whilst waiting nervously to watch The Black Hole, the advertising for which both scares and intrigues me. I glance at my Scooby Doo watch and wonder how many minutes until the film starts. Scooby's arms are the hands of the watch, and I'm getting pretty good at working out the time. Then suddenly, I'm sitting with my Mum eating Revels and watching Breakdance, whilst some kids smoke dope a couple of rows behind us. Then I'm watching Howard The Duck with a buddy of mine, and we're the only people in the screen until about a minute before the film starts.

But this film isn't in Screen One. It's in the smaller screen upstairs, which means walking past another 'Coming Soon' poster midway up the staircase. It's for Damien: Omen II and now I'm too scared to go past it because I'm only a toddler. But somehow I manage it, and I end up in the upstairs lobby looking at a big cardboard stand for Battle Beyond The Stars which looks brilliant, and suddenly I'm a couple of years older and I'm at Saturday Morning Cinema. Screen Two is full of a hundred or so kids all about my age, and a long suffering member of staff called Uncle something is entertaining us and handing out prizes prior to the films. The films are a collection of shorts and cartoons. The main feature is called Electric Eskimo and is about 50 minutes long. There's a serial called Chimp Mates which we see a different episode of every week, except we don't because it's now 5 years later and Uncle something doesn't do the Saturday Morning Cinema anymore, and they show proper, actual films and don't give out prizes. The only criteria is that they have to be PG, so the films aren't always tailored to a crowd of 7-13 year olds. Thus we watch Police Academy 2. And then I'm once again too old to be going to Saturday morning cinema.

And then I'm making plans to go off to University, and I'm too busy thinking about sex and music and pubs and girls and videos to particularly worry about that little cinema down the road because I've, quite frankly, got a lot of other stuff on my mind. And I don't even bother to go to the final show there in 1991.

And then I'm 36, I'm married and I'm probably as grown up as I'm ever going to get.

I'm looking at a branch of Halfords that happens to be standing where some cheap little second-run cinema used to stand. I've stopped by because I need some antifreeze for the car engine but, for some unknown reason, I'm fighting the urge to cry.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Marx Hard

I'm about to not only suck the fun out of one of the most beloved and accomplished American action films ever made, but also suggest the all-American money making machine that is Die Hard (John McTiernan, 1988) is actually thinly veiled communist propaganda. Sorry about that.

I've always thought that Die Hard made a nice parallel to the works of Karl Marx. It is a story about a working class hero who, along with many other innocents, is thrust into peril by a battle between capitalists. Our hero then has to rise up, quite literally, and overthrow (or indeed throw over) one such capitalist and as he falls to the floor his bag of money splits distributing his wealth to the working men and women below.

Whenever I've talked about this half-baked theory it's always been something of a semi-joke. I mean this is Die Hard, the seminal representation of American might against euro-trash nancies made during a period of immense western greed. Yet having read over some of Marx's writings I couldn't help but notice that the similarities are shared right down to the fine details. Let me attempt to sum up Marx's ideas in a woefully inadequate word count:

Marx believed that the driving force of humanity was to make ourselves better through the application of hard work, or labour. Yet with the rise of capitalism humankind was forced to abandon working for self betterment and instead made to sell its labour to help feed the economy. While those that owned the industrial complexes, factories and businesses (the bourgeoisie) reaped the financial benefits those that were selling off their labour (the proletariat) were left with just enough to survive and a lifetime of making other people richer. This, Marx argues, perverted the very thing that defined humanity. The proletariat, therefore, found themselves in a de-humanising downward cycle, while the bourgeoisie just got richer and richer.

The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage labourers.” Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto

I'm a New York cop. I got a six-month backlog on New York scumbags I'm still trying to put behind bars. I can't just pick up and go that easy.” John McCLane, chatting with Argyle and a giant stuffed bear.

John McClane is very much a definitive proletarian. Although the Police can be seen in some respects as part of the authority controlled by the bourgeoisie, in the fantasy of film the cop is a heroic, noble profession, normally driven by a natural instinct for liberty even if pursuing it breaks the laws set by the ruling power. In that respect, the movie cop is a revolutionary character.

Yet McClane talks about his work as if it's a desk job, stripped of all its nobility and purpose and reduced to nothing more than a pile of paperwork. McClane is somewhat tired, as if life has rung the drive out of him then thrown him to the sink with the other dried flannels. He is also out of place in the world of money and technology he finds himself in.

This development has, in its turn, reacted on the extension of industry; and in proportion as industry, commerce, navigation, railways extended, in the same proportion the bourgeoisie developed, increased its capital, and pushed into the background every class handed down from the Middle Ages.Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto

Cute toy” John McClane, confused by touch screen

Nakatomi plaza is a gleaming monument that celebrates financial gain. Models of worldwide projects (the detrimental effects on indigenous populations are explicitly referenced later on in the film) while the luxurious offices are filled with burgeoning capitalists, who are in most cases proletariat hoping to chum up to those in power. We'll get to that in a moment.

When McClane is faced with this strange soulless world he is immediately confused, disorientated and then, to kick him when he is down, has his nose rubbed in the fact that he is of a lower status by Ellis, the typical hairy, money grabbing, coke-faced dick monkey (my words, not Marx's). And in front of McClane's wife no less. Ah, the wife...

The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation into a mere money relation.” Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto

No matter the consequences, no matter what it did to our marriage, you had to take this opportunity” John McClane, digging a hole for himself.

The McClane marriage is a mess. Driven by the desire for a career, Holly changes her name, takes the kids and moves states to the sunny horizons of California, leaving John wallowing in the filthy crime-ridden streets of New York. The requirement to earn money has driven this family apart and exposes McClanes inadequacy as a romantic (a skill not able to produce any kind of commodity and therefore not developed), yet he cannot help but see that the seductive lure of capitalism may steal his wife faster than his insensitivity can drive her away. And that is when all hell breaks loose.

The bourgeoisie finds itself involved in a constant battle. At first with the aristocracy; later on, with those portions of the bourgeoisie itself” Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto

You got some bad-ass perpetrators and they're here to stay” John McClane, stating the obvious.

Hans Gruber and his gang of mercenaries bust into Nakatomi Towers and, under the guise of politicised freedom fighters, attempt one of the most audacious corporate take-overs in history. I had trouble placing Gruber in Marx's writings at first but eventually I found a passage that summed him up.

In this way arose feudal socialism: half lamentation, half lampoon; half an echo of the past, half menace of the future; at times, by its bitter, witty and incisive criticism, striking the bourgeoisie to the very heart's core, but always ludicrous in its effect, through total incapacity to comprehend the march of modern history”

The feudal socialist is a throw-back to the aristocracy that suffered in the formation of the new economy system. They often attack the bourgeoisie but under the guise of a more noble pursuit, in many cases pretending to fight for the proletariat. It's obvious Gruber is from a family used to luxury and, to some degree, pomposity. Yet just as obviously he is in a position requiring quick cash, rather than money earned or inherited. He does this under the pretence of a revolutionary group attempting to free political prisoners and as Holly points out, for all his posturing he is just a common thief.

Importantly this highlights the desire to attain status. Both the bourgeoisie and the proletariat are classifications that denote the capacity for political action, yet between those bookends sit those trying to attain status.  These are the people that, unable to attain any real shift in meaningful political power, instead attempt to merely appear more important through the acquisition of money and some small authority. This can be seen in the staff at Nakatomi towers, as mentioned earlier, but is studied in greater detail in the law enforcement offices on the streets below.

Special Agents Johnson and Johnson have acquired the most status. They are of course beholden to the same laws as everyone else and no doubt will have a superior of their own to give them shit, so they revel in the authority over the rest of the ground crews their status permits. Strutting around in their suits they order city engineers to cut off the power to whole blocks and smugly put down the efforts of both McClane and the rest of the Police force.

Deputy Police Chief Dwayne T. Robinson is a man desperate for status. Constantly aghast at the damage to bourgeoisie property and ready to suck up to the agents at every possible turn, he is a pathetic creature so devoid of soul that he now looks to how he can improve his lot in life by distancing himself from the proletariat and snuggling up to those whom seem more important than he. He is the dehumanised cog in the capitalist machine that Marx feared the workers would turn into.

At the other end of the scale is Sgt. Al Powell. This man is who John McClane used to be. Bright, enthusiastic, optimistic, possibly naïve. With a new baby on the way he is ready to settle down into his job behind a desk, making money to support his family (not yet divided by the pressures of selling labour) and gradually become absorbed into the machine the way Dwayne no doubt was. Luckily for him, McClane eventually shows him the necessity for decisive action.

The bourgeoisie... in all these battles... sees itself compelled to appeal to the proletariat, to ask for help, and thus to drag it into the political arena... it furnishes the proletariat with weapons for fighting the bourgeoisie.” Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto

Now I have a machine gun, ho ho ho” John McClane, dead man's jumper.

Using weapons and explosives pilfered from the invading money-grabbers McClane scurries through the dirty metal service tunnels that spread through the building like veins and lurks in the maintenance rooms reserved for workers, subverting their segregative function and using them instead as tools to rise up against the bourgeoisie. Joining forces with the true members of the proletariat (Powell and Holly) McClane seeks to destroy the very foundations essential to the survival of the bourgeoisie.

The proletarians cannot become masters of the productive forces of society... They have nothing of their own to secure and to fortify; their mission is to destroy all previous securities for, and insurances of, individual property.” Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto

I'm gonna kill you! I'm gonna fuckin' cook you, and I'm gonna fucking eat you! ” John McClane, fucking someone's shit up.

Marx saw the only way to abolish the bourgeoisie was to not only tear down its foundations but ensure no minority took back control. Thereby distribution of wealth and power was essential. Gruber's stolen money is flung into the night sky to float to the waiting emergency services below.

Wealth successfully distributed.

Those that chose to pursue status right to the end are either humiliated (or "butt-fucked on national TV"), or incinerated in a ball of fire. And what of Gruber? He is felled by a rolex watch, perhaps the ultimate symbol of eighties greed and an overt message that the commodities capitalists fetishise are the very things that will cause their undoing.

Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker”... Marx's sentiments exactly.

I'm unsure as to whether Roderick Thorp, the writer of the book the film was based on, screen writer Steven De Souza or Director John McTiernan had any major left-wing ideals but then that's not really the point of this piece. Whether Die Hard is or isn't a reflection of Marx's communist manifesto is irrelevant. What is important is that it highlights quite why Die Hard is such a critically acclaimed film. For all its blood and thunder, it is a densely layered piece offering rewards for those willing to look for them.

Whether it is left-wing, homoerotic, satirical or just plain thrilling, It will always be a masterpiece of American cinema. 

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Total Cults Podcast #19: Collector's Edition

Join Trick and Gogol for this very special collector's edition, director's cut, extended podcast. In 3D. Except it's not extended, or particularly special. CLICK THE TITLE to get the MP3. I know we've been a bit vague about this in the past, then we got all good doing the easy YouTube versions, but CLICK THE TITLE. It's there. Waiting for you.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Total Cults Podcast #18: Alternate Versions

A moment of explanation about this week's podcast, which is a gripping journey into the world of alternate versions of movies. Here's the explanation: CLICK THE TITLE ABOVE TO DOWNLOAD THE MP3. The YouTube version will be along in due course, but the podcast is already awaiting you behind the title directly above. In previous weeks when we haven't had the YouTube version up, we've had a couple of puzzled emails asking why there was a blurb and apparently no podcast. It's there already, waiting for you. Gogol and Trick examine their favourite alternate versions and director's cuts, trying not to just bang on about the same things they always do. See how they fare!

Friday, 11 November 2011

Gogol's Triple Bills: Relatively Tame Genre Movies with Unexpected and Bizarre Non-Consensual Sex Scenes

Non-consensual sex on film is deeply problematic and one that requires serious consideration by both those committing it to film and those who consume it. However this article is not looking at the act itself, or the implications on gender representation it has, rather how these three films place the scenes into their narrative with a devil-may-care approach to tone and logic. How appalling the acts on display are take second place to an overwhelming sense of bewilderment at the process of decision making that lead to these creative choices. So take a deep breath, there will be alcohol rub for your soul on the way out.

1.  The New Barbarians (Enzo Castellari, 1983)

After Mad Max power-slid his interceptor into the brains of movie-going audiences, while at the same time displaying a template for an inherently cost-effective genre, there was a surge of copy-cat productions that flooded the market. The Italians, not one to pass up a chance to jump on the armour-plated bandwagon, cranked out some beauts of their own. The New Barbarians is a fine example of such a work.

In a post-apocalyptic wasteland a nomadic tribe of survivors are hounded by the oppressive Templars; a well organised and equipped fanatical religious order. Standing between the two is Scorpion, a rugged anti-hero with a cool super-charged car and shoulder pads. The film features some car chases, nice explosions, some relatively convincing splatter and the added bonus of Fred Williamson in golden armour, blowing up peoples heads with his explosive arrows. Y'know, the usual stuff.

Towards the end of the second act Scorpion is captured by the Templars and strung up in the desert on display. The leader of the Templars spouts his rhetoric as he gets ready to torture Scorpion into giving up his futile resistance. It's a fairly familiar scene and plods along without any real surprise...

Right up until Scorpion is sodomized.

Yep, the bad guy rapes the hero in front of everyone. Now Scorpion is by no means as iconic as, say, Han Solo, but narratively speaking this is the equivalent of Vader deciding against carbonate and feeling up Han while Chewie buried his face in his paws instead.

Scorpion is rescued and the third act plays out just as conventionally as the rest of the film. The scene in question has no bearing on anything before or after it and tends to leave you thinking whether you might have just imagined it.

2.  Timerider: The Adventure of Lyle Swann (William Dear, 1982)

Before Fred Ward took Remo Williams on an adventure, he took Lyle Swann; a motocross ace trying to beat a speed record, on an adventure of his own. During his record attempt Swann is accidentally sent back through time and into the Wild West. Once a band of outlaws spy his “mechanical horse” they pursue him across the desert until he takes refuge in a run-down town. There isn't a naughty word spoken and what little violence there is is nothing worse than you'd see at a Wild West show. All in all it's a fairly harmless piece of fluff, at least it is to start with.

I must say my spider-sense should have started tingling early on in the film. As Swann finds himself lost, though not yet aware he has been sent back in time, he decides to go for a bit of naked swimming in a nearby stream. As he does he is observed by Claire, a local woman who eventually ends up hiding him. It's all fairly tasteful and great care is taken to obscure Swann's rude bits.  Swann leaves the bike and approaches his clothes. A full skinny-dipping scene and not a single moment of nudity, surely thats your PG secured... right?

Just as you think you're out of the mine-field, however, they decide to throw in a full frontal shot of Fred as he dries himself. Now the shot is brief and from a distance so that the, how shall we say, “detail” is quite difficult make out.

I convinced myself I must have been mistaken and carried on with the film. By the time Swann arrives in town I was noticing a distinct lack of both production value and drama. Aside from the above blip this was playing out like a feature length episode of Knight Rider, or some other vehicle based American show from the 80's, and my interest was beginning to wane.

It is at this point the romantic subplot comes in, or so you might assume. While in town Claire takes him on a lovely tour showing him around her quaint home and as the cultural gulf twixt eras dissolve and their souls grow close Claire forces him to have sex with her at gunpoint.

Wait, what???

I would like to suggest the title of this film is changed to The Humiliation of Lyle Swann. And that's not all, oh my no. You see later on Swann finds out that Claire is his Great Grandmother! I can imagine the BBFC breakdown:

Time travel, Western, Adventure
Infrequent, mild
Infrequent, mild
Incestuous rape! INCESTUOUS RAPE!

3.  Black Belt Jones 2 (Tso Nam Lee, 1978)

Black Belt Jones 2 isn't exactly the most surprising movie to feature such a scene but is here due to its utterly baffling execution. 

This Jim Kelly vehicle has a distinct lack of decent fight scenes and, frankly, entertainment value in general. I'd made it half way and was considering turning it off when the scene in question occurred. A female character visits a gangland boss (who it is implied she had a previous relationship with) to convince him to let her current boyfriend off a debt (or something). The unpleasant fellow agrees but it is going to cost her dearly.

He stands her on a footrest and rips off her dress. We are then subjected to a sequence where we repeatedly cut between closeups of the woman's breasts and the mans bulging, ogling eyes. This little sequence well overstays its welcome and when it ends its something a relief.

Then the sexy saxophone music starts and you're immediately wishing for more shots of tits and eyes. As the horrendously sleazy and inappropriate music plays he manoeuvres her to the bed and proceeds to have sex with her. Well, he lays on top of her and kisses her shoulders, but we get the idea.

It is then that this inept and unpleasant scene becomes transcendental, bursting free of being a simple, unwanted bit of misogyny and taking flight into the world of the bewilderingly insane.

As the man ups his pace, we are suddenly treated to the intercutting of photographs of formula one racing cars and the sounds of their roaring engines and crowds cheering. I at first assumed this was a way of transitioning to a scene at a race track. Yet the following scene, and indeed the rest of the film, has nothing to do with racing.

I have shown this scene to a number of people well-versed in reading film and not one could find meaning in it. It remains something of an enigma and one that continues to challenge me. I have never recommended a film on the grounds of it having a scene such as this, but it is a truly baffling piece of cinema and the only reason I still own that film. You can pick it up in most pound shops and I believe it is up on youtube. But I must warn you, it contains frequent sweaty man, moderate boobage and is not recommended for anyone planning on having sex that week.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Total Cults Podcast #17: Titles

Trick and Gogol are horrified by the titles of the new Die Hard and 007 movies, and so begin a journey into titles. If you've liked the other 16 podcasts, odds are you'll like this one too.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Frankenstein is the Monster from Hell

Martin is attending a party. While the orchestra unfolds gentle waves of delicate music and a man in a quasi-Georgian outfit swoops between the guests balancing a tray of impossibly stacked gold-foil confectionaries Martin captures the gaze of the Countess. She snakes seductively across the ballroom floor and, with brazenness greater than one would expect from someone who spends so much time crafting such an elegant appearance, asks Martin softly the question he hoped she’d ask:

What are your favourite movie monsters?”

Martin tells her he favours the classics and enthusiastically lists those that have captured, and haunted, his imagination. Yet so enthusiastic is he that he refers to Frankenstein’s monster as merely “Frankenstein”. The faux par is compounded as a passing guest comments smugly that Frankenstein is the name of the creator, not the name of the monster and before Martin knows what is happening the Countess is looking at him like he’s got shit on his lip.

We’ve all been there.

Yet there is validity in referring to Frankenstein as one of your favourite monsters.

Christopher Lee's Dracula has, for me, become the iconic realisation of the literary monster, more so than Lugosi's. Yet the Hammer version of Frankenstein's monster has not burnt its image into my mind in the same way. It is easy to initially conclude that this is because each film presented us with a new monster, with not only different designs but entirely different conceptualisations.  The prime reason, however, that the monster was never as iconic as the Universal version was that Hammer films were less interested in assembling a monster, but in disassembling the creator.

In The Curse of Frankenstein (Terence Fisher, 1957) Peter Cushing provides a fairly conventional portrayal of Victor Frankenstein. He is a man of ambition and scientific skill convinced of the benefits he intends to bring to mankind. Yet so absorbed with the benefits is he that he can't see the horrors he must unleash to achieve them.  For the most part, Frankenstein is as sympathetic a character as the pitiful creature he creates.  As we see his gradual descent into villainy we want to reach into the screen and shake him back to morality.  Alas, the moment he sacrifices an innocent women to his creature is the moment he is lost to us, falling into the role of villain entirely.

This struggle between ambition and evil permeates the next three sequels. As the Doctor dodges capture and execution to continue his unconventional medical experiments he openly displays a desire to advance medical science and compassion for his 'patients', yet equally displays callousness, a skill for manipulation and at times a complete disconnect with humanity.  Yet it is possible to argue that the disconnect with humanity is the objectivity a scientist this ambitious would need.  This is what makes Doctor Frankenstein such an engaging and layered character.  He is so brilliant and so utterly dedicated that you want him to get a grip and apply himself to more ethical pursuits.  But just as you reach out to try and rescue some hint of humanity, he sweeps your legs away with an act so monstrous even Dracula would be embarrassed to hang out with him.

By the time we get to Frankenstein Must be Destroyed (Terence Fisher, 1969) Victor Frankenstein has escaped capture by mounting a full-blown home invasion, blackmailing and manipulating a local Doctor and his wife into not only hiding him from the law but aiding him in his experiments.  There are absolutely no redeeming qualities in Frankenstein as he takes on the role of villain entirely, going as far to adopt the role of monster when he rapes the Doctor's wife.

In Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (Terence Fisher, 1974), Cushing's final portrayal, we find a seemingly mellow Victor in a prison for the criminally insane.  A former inmate, he has used his considerable aptitude for manipulation to take over the asylum.  He uses this position, however, to simply (or seemingly) treat the other inmates.   This, alongside the nefarious company he is forced to keep (psychotic killers, sadistic wardens and the prison director who sexually abuses not only the female prisoners but his own daughter), puts Victor in the unusual position of being the morally superior one.

Even when we eventually find he has been up to his usual tricks, it is the Frankenstein of old: caught between ambition and compassion, he is passionate and desperate to prove to the world he can save those who have passed on regardless of the boundaries he must cross.

The monster he creates is possibly one of the most sympathetic, yet is also one of the most successful. One begins to wonder that if Victor finally succeeded then the legitimisation of his work would allow him to leave behind the illegitimate practices that got him there. Yet, once again, the moment you start to see things from his side he reminds you of how appallingly monstrous he actually is. After revealing quite how manipulative he has been, he tops it all by suggesting the one entirely innocent character (the aforementioned abused daughter of the prison director) be forced to 'mate' with the monster.

What an inhuman, misogynist shit.

As you'd expect it all goes pretty badly for him and his creation is rather graphically pulled to pieces before his horrible intentions are realised.   Yet Frankenstein simply wipes down his hands and smugly theorises how he will improve the process next time round. We leave him having escaped scott-free with a whole asylum full of fresh 'donors' that no-one will miss.  As the last of Hammer's Frankenstein films we never get to see him stand trial for his crimes.  Unlike most monsters, this son-of-a-bitch has got away with it.

Cushing's Frankenstein is a unique incarnation. His gaunt body and unnaturally protrusive cheekbones presents a vision as iconic as any foam latex and face-paint creature put on screen. And whereas most monsters keep coming back to wreck more havoc, his creations are dead and buried by the time the credits roll. It is he, a human bereft of any supernatural ability, that returns for more.  A skinny scientist mingling with the princes of darkness, brutish serial killers and dream demons in the horror halls of fame while his many monstrous creations look in through the windows.

So the next time someone tries to smugly correct you, you can tell them to brush up on their Hammer because in these films, Frankenstein is both creator and monster.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Total Cults Podcast #16: Halloween

Gogol and Trick break out the 'BBC Sounds of Death and Horror' vinyl and get down to some good old fashioned discussion of Halloween. Not just the movies, either. Gasp! As you learn the terrifying results of Trick's first encounter with a Trick or Treater. Faint! As Gogol fills you in about Jesusween...

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Total Cults Podcast #15: Subtext

Gogol and Trick go delving beneath the surface to examine the juicy subtext below in this exciting, bulging package of a podcast. What are the movies trying to tell us? Are we being brainwashed by the images we see? Oh, to be honest, they don't actually go that deep at all. They do manage to talk bollocks about films and TV shows, though, so if that's what you're after, fill your boots.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Total Cults Podcast #14: Monsters

James Trick and Doctor Gogol begin talking about the worlds greatest monsters but are quickly gripped by an all consuming desire to create life of their own!  By the time the podcast ends they have created their very own monster...  a truly horrifying idea for a film!

And here's a YouTube version for people who don't like MP3s..

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Total Cults Podcast #13: Robots

James Trick and Doctor Gogol discuss the good, the bad and the boxes with wobbly arms that make up the wonderful world of movie robots.

ROBOT JOX (Stuart Gordon, 1990)

In the far future war has been recognised as expensive and morally bankrupt, so all global conflict is settled in the most economical and ethical way possible: The televised sport of giant robots smashing the crap out of each other while an audience (of what looks like homeless people) cheer!

Welcome to the future that Robot Jox paints, a wonderful straight to VHS science fiction actioner. It's a film that, on the surface, looks kind of cheap and silly but when comparing it to what sat alongside it on the shelves of Laser Video (one of my many local video shops growing up) it was clear that Robot Jox was hell-bent on going that extra mile. The film gets so much right that it's hard to dismiss.

Firstly, the casting is better than normal. The robot pilot (or Jock) of the fictional western country (basically America) is played by Gary Graham. Unlike most direct to VHS films of the 90's Graham was not cast because he had long, magnificent hair and bulbous deltoids but rather because he actually had charisma.

His opponent, fighting for a fictional eastern country (that would be Russia) is played by Paul Koslo who, despite looking like someone shrunk Ivan Drago in a hot wash, has great fun sneering and growling with a wonderfully non-specific accent.

But no-one cares about the people right? This film is called Robot Jox! If your film is about robots then you better fill it with the buggers. Not only do they do just that, but the mechanical monsters are brilliantly realised through stop/go motion and puppeteering.

Then there is the score! Listen to this:

No film made for home release should have anything but a minimal synth score. This kind of shameless aiming high is tantamount to heresy.

Where the film does fall down, however, is its attempt to introduce futuristic sports-slang. The standard good-luck message of a Jock is a big thumbs up and an enthusiastic orating of the phrase “Crash and Burn”. Now, I can understand the “crash” bit. It's energetic, a bit destructive and implies that whoever is doing the crashing is the proactive agent, in that they will be “crashing” someone else. I can quite clearly see sports stars of the future telling each other to “get out there and crash it!”. What is problematic is the addition of the words “and burn” which clearly connotes utter failure and turns the “crasher” into the “crashee”. It is the equivalent of telling a stage performer to “break a leg”, before adding “and get gangrene...”

“ sack of malignant bollocks”.

Telling someone to fall to the floor and burn to death does not motivate in any way, regardless of the register with which it is spoken. “Crash and burn” works not as an expression of good luck and do not attempt to use it in real life. Do not shout it out to your child during their school sports day, do not write it in a 'get-well' card and do not use it in an attempt to motivate your partner during sex. In all three cases I found it had quite opposite effect.

During production there was some dispute between writer Joe Haldeman, who wanted to make a serious piece and director Stuart Gordon, who wanted to make a big fun fantasy film. Gordon claims he was making a film for children that adults would enjoy. It is always a good tactic to slip intelligent and sophisticated elements into a children's film to keep the adults engaged while their kids whoop and howl at the lasers and robots...

Or you can just have one robot orally rape the other with his cock-sword. 

This film also contains clones, a flying car and a character called 'Tex' who wears a massive cowboy hat. But these are just confectionery toppings on the dollop of ice-cream that is robot on robot wrestling. It really is worth your time if the thought of giant robots fighting excites you.

If it doesn't, I'll presume you wandered onto this site by accident.