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.