Blood Simple

Blood Simple, the directorial/writing debut of the Coen brothers Joel and Ethan, is a sticky, sweaty, clammy picture about deceit and confusion, set in the heart of Texas. Marty (Dan Hedaya) runs a bar, and is the boss of Ray (John Getz) and Meurice (Samm-Art Williams). Distrustful of his wife Abby (Frances McDormand), Dan has hired private investigator Loren Visser (M. Emmet Walsh) to look into what she does with her time. It transpires that Abby is sleeping with Ray, so Marty hires Loren to kill them both whilst he is away on a fishing trip. What with this being a Coen film, things don’t necessarily go to plan, but it is the direction the events took, and the motives involved that I found both interesting and compelling.

Tonally, this is probably most similar to Fargo or No Country For Old Men amongst the Coens’ oeuvre. There’s not a great deal of humour surrounding the violence and devious plotting going on, and the location of Texas adds a great deal to the setting, just as Minnesota did for Fargo and Texas again for No Country. I found this lack of comedy to be a bit jarring – there are some moments of Coen-esque quirkiness certainly, and a couple of jokes in the script, but for the most part this is played dead seriously. The brothers can do serious very well, but personally I prefer their lighter efforts.
Had I not known this was a Coen film (and had it not starred Frances McDormand) then I don’t think I’d have immediately associated it with them. If anything, the structure of the narrative felt far too linear and ordinary, with the exception of perhaps missing an opening and closing scene most directors would have felt obliged to leave in. We’re fed the plot in dribs and drabs, discovering who each of the characters is and their relationships to one another just a couple of minutes after we need to.
Though he isn’t necessarily amongst the lead trio of the film, I would class Walsh’s performance as the greatest in the movie. His Visser is the human embodiment of a lizard, a slimy, oily gumshoe with a malicious streak and a rasping laugh that still haunts my dreams. He plays the part so well that I can’t believe I haven’t come across the actor in much else. For my sins I only really know him from Wild Wild West (he was the train driver). Can anyone recommend any of his other work?
I loved the musical choices in the film, especially Ray mopping up blood to the sounds of The Four Tops’ It’s the Same Old Song, an almost Tarantino-like retro song choice. The camerawork too was at times inspired; the marriage of lighting and camera movement revealing Visser’s cigarette lighter on a table, and the oppressive close shots inside the bar intensifying the humid atmosphere.
I can’t imagine this film cost very much to make – the biggest set pieces involve a car and a shovel, and a gun, knife and a window – yet it’s easily as gripping as many other big budget blockbusters. It reminded me of the likes of Glengarry Glen Ross or Reservoir Dogs, neither one which involves a lot of spectacle, but they have great characters and dialogue, which really is in my opinion more important. I’d have liked a last shot of Meurice – one of the coolest characters in film, check out his bar-top shuffle – but other than that the ending was pretty well contained and executed. Whilst by no means the Coens’ best, this is still definitely worth a watch.
Choose film 8/10
Advertisements

Somebody Up There Likes Me

After a couple of small TV roles and an uncredited appearance in 1953’s Girl On the Run (I haven’t found it yet, but I will) Steve McQueen’s second film role, again uncredited, was in this Paul Newman boxing film that I’d previously never heard of and can kind of understand why. It’s not that it’s a terrible film, it’s just thoroughly underwhelming, and tells a familiar story in a genre that has since far superseded it. To start with, it’s a boxing movie where the lead character is Italian and called Rocky Barbella (Newman). If that’s not a coincidence I’ll be shocked.

Rocko ‘Rocky’ Barbella (later Braziano) is a street hoodlum son of a former boxer. As a kid, his Dad Mick (Harold J. Stone) embarrassed Rocky in front of his friends whilst he tried to teach him how to box, and ten years later his layabout father has clearly had a prominent effect on Rocky, as he’s on the lam from the cops, and refuses to either get a job or an education. Things don’t work out too well for the lad, and he gets himself in trouble and locked away for a few years and, upon his release, is immediately conscripted to fight in World War 2. During this time, he discovers an aptitude for fighting, and is able to mould it into a boxing career, which comes in useful when he needs to raise a little money later on.
I can’t really pick out much that was terrible about this film, but nor can I find many reasons to recommend it. Newman was good (other than sounding like Jackie Gleason), but had yet to reach his shining greatness (he is definitely a front-running candidate for a future Film-Makers run, even if I have to watch Cars again) and there were some shots that I loved, particularly a receding tracking shot as Rocky makes his way through a busy market, but this happens near the start of the film, and I kept my hopes up for more cinematography of this calibre but sadly was left wanting. As well as being reminiscent of many boxing films that have been released since (not a fault of this film, but certainly not a reason to watch it either) there were some plot points eerily similar to another Newman classic, Cool Hand Luke, most noticeably his incarceration into a chain gang, during which he has a life-changing fist fight.
There were a couple of obvious gaffs – at one point a man knocks on a very wooden-sounding tent – but otherwise the script was generally entertaining (when offered a cup for a boxing match, Rocky declines and says he’ll drink out of the bottle). Some beats seemed a little extreme – a prison guard pulling a gun when an inmate doesn’t move his towel, a judge awarding Rocky with a prison sentence of indeterminate length – but these could be a product of the time the film was made and set. I loved the scene where Rocky’s manager (Everett Sloane) was telling him his love life (with his sister’s friend Adrian, sorry Norma, Pier Angeli) was making him too happy and healthy to be a boxer.
McQueen plays one of Rocky’s gang early on in the film, and his trademark doing-something-in-the-background-eve-when-he’s-not-supposed-to-be is evident even here. I was expecting him to show up again later in the film, when Rocky revisits his old town and meets up with other ruffian Romolo (Sal Mineo), but alas he only got a few scenes at the start, and didn’t have too much to do in them, but it’s only his second film so it’s OK.
I felt the film seemed to drag near the end, even though it skipped through the dense plot pretty quickly and remained under two hours long. I definitely felt like they couldn’t think of a name (or last line) for the film, and someone saw the title of Perry Como’s song, which coincidentally plays over the credits, and thought they may as well use it for this. It didn’t really fit, going by the amount of bad luck Rocky endured throughout most of his life, but it didn’t jar too much either. For all I could tell Newman was convincing in his boxing scenes, and fans of his won’t be disappointed, but unless you’re a completist like me, or have a particular fixation with boxing movies, there’s not much else here to keep you engaged.
Choose life 6/10

Return to Horror High

Given the cinematic journey I’ve chosen to peruse, I don’t often get to watch truly terrible films. Sure, there are some on the 1001 List that I’m not necessarily a fan of, but they tend to have some kind of artistic merit or historical value that justifies their position. I also tend to make an effort to avoid films I think are likely to be awful, as I probably won’t enjoy them, and there are so many other films I’m sure will be better. I think the last awful film I reviewed was Big Trouble in Little China, and that was only because Empire readers inexplicably voted it the 430th greatest film of all time, despite it having almost no redeeming features whatsoever. It was refreshing then, as I begin my exploration through George Clooney’s career, to go out with a mate, have a few drinks, plays some Call of Duty and settle in to watch this goddawful slice of tripe.
The plot is reminiscent of Scream 3; a film crew is shooting a horror movie based on the killings that occurred in a school some years earlier. To add to the realism, they are shooting the film on the site of the school, and some of the parts are being played by the people involved in the actual event. A few days later, a police investigation is being undertaken as almost everyone involved in the film has been found dead outside the school, except for the writer, who is recounting the tale to two police officers. This scenario has potential to be a half-decent horror flick, I mean I’ve heard a lot worse, but alas this is not the case, as what little plot there is deteriorates into a hashed up mess fairly early on.Clooney, for he is the reason I’m watching this, has a miniscule role as an actor eager to break his contract early so he can start filming on a TV series.He succeeds in leaving his role, only to be killed moments later, in one of those moments where the intensifying score clearly signposts exactly what will happen. You know, when they’re walking down a dark corridor, and the ominous music only plays when they’re slowly making their way forward, then the music stops when they do. To be honest, it’s probably for the best that Clooney died when he did in this film, his hair is atrocious.

As far as I can tell the rest of the cast is of little note – hardly surprising when you look at the acting on show – with the exception of Maureen McCormick, whose turn as a cop that becomes alarmingly aroused by dismembered body parts proves to be all the more bizarre when you discover she played Marcia Brady on The Brady Bunch. Now I’ve never seen that show for two reasons: a, I’ve always lived in the UK, where I’m fairly sure it’s never been aired, and b, I’m under the age of 35, but I’m fairly sure Marcia never came on to her superior officer after discovering a severed arm, or clawed seductively at her blood-splattered breasts whilst she retold her exploits involving sliding down a gruesome hallway.

My main problem with the film was the plot, especially the last ten minutes, which features not one but two of the worst twists I’ve ever seen. The first, involving a Mission Impossible-style removable face mask, is ridiculous enough, but the second is of such sweeping idiocy that it beggars belief, and doesn’t withstand even a second’s worth of examination. Up until that point I had forgiven most of the film’s other flaws – of which there are many – on the basis of the director’s lack of experience (this is his only film credit) and budgetary reasons (although great films have been made for far less than this film cost), but the film’s ending is just so ridiculously inane that it turned me off the rest of the film completely.

So what else is wrong with it? Well, it uses the age old filming-a-scene-but-not-telling-us-they’re-filming-a-scene schtick at least three times, and the it’s-all-a-dream thing once, there’s a sex scene illuminated by someone welding something quite far away from the first floor window of the room in which the coitus is occurring, no-one actually finds the bodies mounting up, yet people are clearly scared of a suspected killer they have no reason to suspect, and there’s one of the worst uses of a Schwarzanegger-esque one-liner I’ve ever seen (“Class dismissed.”)

On the plus side, the script the script does have some gems, including a conversation about explosive breasts (“There will be no exploding tit shot!”) and possibly the greatest worst special efect I’ve ever seen in a shot of an axe beheading someone in silhouette through a frosted glass door, with the axe swinging down, followed wiftly by a clearly fake head being thrown far too enthusiastically up in the air. Needless to say, my friend and I were in stitches at this, and it received a good few rewinds before we were done. If I knew how to embed mpegs you’d be watching this for the rest of the day.

So, all in, this is one of the worst films I’ve ever seen. At times it wanders into so-bad-its-good territory, but for the most part it’s just terrible. I will not be returning to Horror High any time soon.

Choose life 2/10

Top 5 Tony Scott Films

R.I.P. Tony Scott. His death has come as such a surprise that I have little to say about it, other than he will be greatly missed, and I feel he had many more films to make. Here’s my tribute to the director.
5. Deja Vu/Unstoppable
Both very different films about travel (train and time) these are examples of Scott’s almost-great films. There’s a little something missing from each of them (Deja Vu annoys the shit out of me for not following its own time-travel logic, but I’ll get into that some other day) but neither film could ever be called boring, even though one of them is literally on rails. Also, Denzel Washington is awesome.

The Ring (1927)

Although this wasn’t Hitchcock’s first film (he made at least five before this one, although at least one of those in deemed ‘lost’ [1926’s The Mountain Eagle] and another two unfinished [Number 13 and Always Tell Your Wife, from 1922 and 1923 respectively]) The Ring is the earliest one I can get my hands on at present, so my travels through the history of Hitch will have to begin here. Telling the story of an amateur boxer working at a carnival who gets a shot at the big time after he is scouted by a renowned heavyweight, The Ring almost knocked me out for being a Hitchcock film about one of the least Hitchcockian subjects, sport.
Carl Brisson is Jack ‘One Round’ Sander, who makes his living by challenging regular schmoes to a boxing match at a carnival. His fiance (Lillian Hall-Davis) chews gums as she works the ticket counter, and his friends are his assistants and announcer. One night, after dispatching the usual rag-tag band of hopefuls fairly promptly – one of whom defeats himself as he enters the ring – Jack meets his match against Bob Corby (Ian Hunter), who unbeknownst to Jack is an Australian heavyweight champion, and has already been making moves on his girl. After the fight, Bob claims his reward (a grand total of £2.00), and tells Jack he plans to give him his chance with the professionals. Bob and Jack’s fiance, and eventually his wife, become much closer as Jack becomes more successful, which leads to a love triangle developing between the three, coming to a head when Jack and Bob fight on another at the end of the film.

Had I not known this was a Hitchcock film, I would have been very surprised to discover the fact. Other than themes of deception and suspicion, this does not seem to fit within the rest of his work. Even the leading female is a brunette! Now I’m sure that Hitchcock obviously didn’t start out as a master film-maker – truly brilliant debut films are few and far between – but I had hoped for more than this, as this film is at best just mediocre. The plot is nothing special, and feels dragged out even at less than 90 minutes, and when you consider that the last 10+ minutes of this are a boxing match that feels like it lasts at least an hour, then the pacing is really quite a problem.

Hitchcock’s infamous mysogany and sexism is evident in places. Though she is essentially the third lead, Hall-Davis’ character is only ever referred to as ‘The Girl,’ even though her character has is called Millie. In both the opening credits and her introductory title card she is given that fairly vague, nondescript title. There is some interesting camerawork, especially early on in the initial fight, with the camera remaining stationery, pointed at Jack’s opponent’s corner of the ring, as the would-be fighter heads off screen to fight, only to be thrown back a second later, dishevelled and clearly defeated. However other than this and some occasional semi-dream sequences and video distortion to emulate rage, drunkeness and being knocked out, there isn’t much to take note of.

The title of ‘The Ring‘ most obviously refers to the boxing ring within which a fair amount of the film takes place, however it also refers to the wedding ring (this is possibly the first cinematic incarnation of a best man losing the ring), a bangle given to Millie by Bob, a forune-teller’s ring of cards and the circular nature of the plot, as the final scenes are very similar to the opening one, with Millie watching on as the two men fight it out. By the end, they are no longer just fighting for money and a title, but for honour, pride and the hand of the woman they both love.

I had one major gripe with the film. Throughout the story we are shown countless posters advertising boxing matches, upon which are the names of dozens of boxers. Yet of them all, Jack is the only one with a nickname. (Although at one point someone dates the movie a tad by referring to a boxer in a less than affectionate racial slur that I don’t care to repeat.) Surely at least one of the others would have a stage name, for the sake of realism? Also, look out for one of Bob’s assistants, who looks spot on like Jack Nance in Eraserhead.

Before watching this, I’d yet to see a Hitchcock film I hadn’t at least liked. I hope dearly that his learning curve was steep, and he got better very quickly.

Choose life 4/10

Heavenly Creatures

Christchurch, New Zealand, the mid-1950s. Two girls, Pauline (Melanie Lynskey) and Juliet (Kate Winslet) run terrified through the dense forest, the air streaked with their screams and their faces streaked with blood. They burst through the bushes and emerge to the concerned face of a passer-by with the words “It’s Mummy! She’s terribly hurt!”So begins Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures, the true story of two schoolgirls whose problematic home lives forge a bridge between them, a bridge that leads to a fantasy world of princes and princesses, giant butterflies, murder, topiary and unicorns. But when their parents strive to separate the two, the girls hatch a plan to remain together by taking drastic actions.

Transformers

Part 2 in my Shia LaBoeuf: the Scourge of Cinema double-bill sees him taking on giant, transforming robot aliens as he attempts to save the world using a weird little cube, and cop off with Megan Fox. I’ve got no historical connection to the Tranformers franchise, as I neither saw the cartoon series or the animated feature from the 80s, and I’ve never played with any of the toys as a child. So unlike many people, I feel that so far my childhood has been unmolested by Michael Bay, something I was afraid I’d no longer be spared from with his intentions to paint his own brand of ridiculousness onto the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which I think now has been fortunately abandoned.I first saw the film in cinemas five years ago, when I was barely 20. At that point, I must have been just on the outside cusp of the film’s target audience, as I thought it was amazing. At that point in my life, Michael Bay was something of a favourite director of mine – I even liked Pearl Harbor – and a film that followed cars transforming into robots and beating the scrap out of each other, interspersed with eardrum-bursting explosions, comic cameos and gratuitous shots of Megan Fox bending over an engine at sunset was of course going to do nothing but good to my barely-older-than-teenage mind. Now, however, I see the film for the hollow, disorganised, puerile mess that it truly is.Granted, I’m no longer the film’s target audience, but this is my review, so I’m giving my opinions. This film is stupid. I’m on board for a story about robots from outer space that can somehow transform into cars, planes and, um, a stereo, but unfortunately most of this film is about Shia LaBeouf’s Sam Witwicky, a typical the-only-character-LaBeouf-can-play annoying, dumb every-kid stereotype with embarrassing parents, mediocre grades, stupid friends, a crappy car and a complete and utter lack of charm and charisma. As always, LaBeouf plays an annoying tit rather well, as you’d expect from having had so much practise. It transpires that Sam’s great-grandfather was an Arctic explorer who discovered the allspark – the movie’s maguffin that is capable of creating new transformers – and Sam holds the key to it’s whereabouts, because somehow a map has been engraved into his ancestor”s spectacles. Ludicrous. Two warring tribes of robot aliens – the human-loving Autobots, led by Optimus Prime (voiced by series original Peter Cullen), and the world-conquering Decepticons, led by Megatron (a wasted Hugo Weaving) – somehow learn that Sam has the glasses, and trace his location using eBay. Of course. Along for the ride is Megan Fox’s Mikaela, the girl of Sam’s dreams who is clearly from such a broken home that her family is unable to replace the clothes she clearly grew out of some years ago.There’s also a couple of sub-plots involving the squad of marines – a Michael Bay trademark – who initially encounter a Decepticon attack, and attempts by the government to decode a message recorded from the bots. Each of these strands involves barely fleshed out caricatures instead of actual characters – the marine who sporadically speaks in Spanish even though no-one else understands him, the immature ‘world’s greatest hacker’ with his irritating dance-gaming friend – and does anyone else remember when Jon Voight was a respected actor, and not reduced to offering dry exposition as the Secretary of Defense? The government strand featured one of my biggest pet peeves in films. The film focuses on a group of hackers. This group is predominantly made up of guys who look like hackers – they’re overweight, scruffy, and generally appear socially awkward. And of course the one who’s better than all of them is played by Rachael Taylor, who looks like a supermodel. There is no girl in the world who looks like that and knows how to hack. I’m aware that of all the things in the film that don’t make sense, this is relatively minor, but it’s something that has always annoyed me.

This kind of films lives or dies by the CGI, and I’ll be the first to admit that it’s damn impressive. There are some sequences that look absolutely bad-ass, most notably the opening Scorpiok attack, and a massive-scale battle between both sides at the end. Starscream, the Decepticon who is able to transform into a jet, has the coolest moments, especially when he transforms in mid-flight and swings on a bridge during a strike on the Hoover dam, so in those respects the film has some enjoyable moments. The problem is that in a film for which the entire draw is robots hitting each other, there’s just not enough of it. At one point, the robots are in the middle of a catastrophic fight, yet we are left watching Voight and the hackers searching for some microphones and using morse code.

There were a lot more attempts at juvenile comedy than I remembered from my earlier viewing, and very few of them were gratefully received. At one point, a diminutive robot capable of transforming into a machine attempts to walk nonchalantly passed some people looking for it, and it tries to cover it’s face whilst walking! This is not comedy, nor is it clever, it;s just stupid. There are many more scenes like this – an Autobot ‘lubricating’ (peeing) on John Turtorro’s government agent, Sam’s asinine chihuahua Mojo, everything LaBeouf does – and the only comedic scenes that really do the job are those involving Bernie Mac as a car salesman, and Kevin Dunn and Judy White as Sam’s all-too-familiar parents.

If the idea of giant metallic creatures from space beating each other up has you foaming at the mouth with excitement – and at times this is a category I’d class myself in – then you’ll probably like about half this film. If you’ve recently had a lobotomy or are a prepubescent male, then you’ll probably like the other half. If not, just leave it alone.

Choose life 5/10