Videodrome (1983)

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This has something you don’t have Max. It has a philosophy. And that’s what makes it dangerous. Max Renn (James Woods) is the director of a UHF TV channel operating out of Toronto in the early 80s looking for new material. He picks up a channel specialising in torture and violence which appears to be operating out of Pittsburgh. When his new girlfriend radio host Nikki Brand (Blondie’s Debbie Harry) disappears and turns up in one of their snuff movies he finds out too late that his violent hallucinations are happening because of what he’s been exposed to on videotapes which aren’t being broadcast at all – they’re being targeted at powerful people to exert mind control in a disintegrating society … David Cronenberg’s film has such a predictive quality despite some yucky special effects by Rick Baker. Made a decade before the internet became public, this is a satirical disquisition on the dangers of virtual reality and the closing of the distance between hard and soft technology – just watch what Woods does with his own abdomen, the new slot for a live VCR that has a direct connection with his brain! After Scanners made him famous this is the body horror that Cronenberg brought to bear on the idea of censorship and the belief run riot in those days that watching violent films bred violence in the viewer.  Woods’ ‘paranoid intellectualism’ as Cronenberg has it is just the disparaging stance that this subject needs to express this film’s very black comedy.  Long live the new flesh indeed.

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Lethal Weapon (1987)

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Where did you get him – Psychos R Us? Its Christmas in LA. A beautiful young blonde takes some pills and swan dives from a high rise apartment onto the roof of a parked car. Ageing police officer and family man Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) is newly paired with psychotically reckless widowed undercover cop and former Green Beret Marty Riggs (Mel Gibson) who has been suicidal and virtually homicidal since the death of his wife in a car crash. The dead girl is Amanda Hunsaker the daughter of an acquaintance of Murtaugh’s from Nam. Her pills were drugged with drain cleaner so she would have been dead within 15 minutes one way or another. After a shootout with Amanda’s pimp, Murtaugh figures the reason his friend was trying to contact him in the days before Amanda’s death was because he wanted to rat out his colleagues in a heroin smuggling ring dating back to their days in Air America, the CIA front for smuggling in Laos and they likely killed the girl as a warning. The group is led by General McAllister (Mitchell Ryan) whose enforcer Jack Joshua (Gary Busey) is a violent psychotic who meets his match in Marty Riggs and when he captures him it’s torture  … Shane Black’s screenplay caused a sensation when it sold for megabucks back in the day.  It has some uncredited work done by Jeffrey Boam because the original was much darker than what we see here. Sure it’s a trashy loud violent action buddy movie but its real strength is the bed of emotions played by Glover and Gibson, two well-matched actors who have charisma to burn and were ingeniously cast by the legendary Marion Dougherty. Murtaugh’s quandary as the father of a teenage daughter is amplified by his Nam buddy’s heartache over his daughter’s plight and motivates him to pursue the conspirators (and is also a significant plot point); while Riggs’s deranged grief is understandable to anyone who’s bereaved:  his rooftop rescue of a jumper is breathtaking.  The deadpan style is emphasised when Murtaugh is warned by a police psychiatrist after the fact about what could happen when Riggs blows. The treatment of the suicide storyline is extremely well written. It’s all about how these guys choose to express their feelings and confront their fears while carrying out their duties in this smart and funny slambang sensation which is so sharply directed by Richard Donner. It has visual and narrative energy in abundance: Donner makes his usual visual jokes about where he places his credit and puts The Lost Boys on a cinema marquee and the film is dedicated to stuntman Dar Robinson who died after production. This was the first in a long-running franchise and three years later Gibson starred in Air America a film about those very merry pranksters who are the villains here Produced by Joel Silver.

The Birth of a Nation (2016)

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William Kienzle once wrote that nothing beats religion, sex and murder. This almost-true (ish) story of Nat Turner (Nate Parker) a literate slave and preacher in antebellum Virginia has all of the above plus a sense of righteousness that along with Twelve Years a Slave risks a new era of blaxploitation with rather different text than in the Seventies.  We are dealing with archetypes rather than real characters despite its biographical origins. Year in year out, another brutal beating, unwatchable torture and horrible violence. From his childhood to his inevitable death by hanging after taking revenge on the supposedly kindly owner Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer) who betrays him after persuading him to suppress rebellion through religion we are not remotely surprised by any of the narrative turns. Worthy but not really memorable, from the quadruple threat Parker – who directs and produces as well as co-writing with Jean McGianni Celestin.

War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)

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What have I done? Adapted loosely from Battle for the Planet of the Apes, this continues the saga in a reboot that, for this viewer at least, worked brilliantly in the first episode and not at all in the second (horrible cast, horribly shot). Matt Reeves however is back to direct this and it’s fierce, chilling and captivating, in every sense. Caesar (Andy Serkis) now has a psychological battle (against Koba) and an actual war against an American military whose renegade paramilitary California outfit (the Alpha and the Omega) run by the ruthless colonel Woody Harrelson imprisons apes in a quarantine facility aka work camp where parent apes are separated from their children.  Torture is random and regular while a collaborator ape, Donkey, brutalises his fellows. The allusions to the Aryan Brotherhood and Nazis are inevitable not to mention the theory of eugenics which originated in that great state. Caesar’s personal motive  is now revenge after his wife and younger son, Cornelius, are murdered in raids. He takes off with his own small band of brothers – orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval), Luca (Michael Adamthwaite) and Rocket (Terry Notary) – and they rescue a little human girl whom they christen Nova (Amiah Miller) who has been rendered mute but is quite the brain. Then they find a seemingly witless addition to their group (Steve Zahn) who repeats the mantra ‘bad ape, bad ape’ but turns out to be quite the strategist. He’s been in hiding since the killer simian flu outbreak. This is quite a bleak but utterly compelling fast-moving narrative with one big scene (a tad too on the nose?) between Caesar and Harrelson in which the prototypical neo-Nazi lays out his reasoning (fighting a holy war for the future of mankind) and explains how he killed his little boy rather than have him disabled by this strange illness causing the loss of speech. Harrelson looks like he did in Natural Born Killers which is probably a reference too far. The crucifying of Caesar (and others) has clear Biblical allusions (water, desert, one rebel and his few followers) and the suffering can be tough to watch. But the action is at a cracking pace. This aspires to mythical qualities and has them in abundance. You might find there is resonance with the current political situation – in many territories – or that might also be a reference too far. Whatever. There is a great but deathly dangerous escape and a tragic sacrifice. You either roll with this or you don’t. I do! Written by Mark Bomback and Matt Reeves, adapting from Pierre Boulle’s source novel which started the whole thang.

The Colony (2015)

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Aka Colonia. This is the film that infamously earned just £47 on its opening weekend in London last year. That means about 5 people paid to see it. Maybe it’s the subject matter. You don’t need me to tell you that anywhere Germans gather in large numbers there’s going to be a problem. They know it themselves at this point. This takes place in Chile in 1973 when the country was at the high point of unrest and General Pinochet was taking over in a vicious military coup. People were rounded up in the streets and identified by masked informers, and shot in football stadia. And caught up in this are Daniel (Daniel Bruhl) and Lena (Emma Watson), a German activist and photographer and his airline stewardess girlfriend who goes to his rescue when he’s kidnapped by the secret police and delivered to a torture camp run by cult leader Paul Schaefer (Michael Nyqvist). Daniel fakes disability to survive beatings and electrocution; she fakes religious fervour to gain admission to this supposed religious cult and finds herself inside a major circle of child abusers and … inbred Germans. There are a lot of them in South America. It’s not a very well observed drama and frankly despite its being rooted in truth – just watch the German Embassy sell them out when they eventually escape the madness, into more madness – it made me giggle at times.  Not, I fear, the desired response. Watson is not very good and Bruhl is doing what they say you should never do as an actor (remember Harrison Ford?!) – going full retard (well, sort of… ) The fact is this is actually the makings of a brilliant documentary, as the closing credits make clear:  the real camp was a centre for Government-ordered torture, the German Embassy was in collusion, Pinochet never admitted to it, and Schaefer wasn’t caught until 2002 – where? Argentina, of course, that other haven for Nazis. Hundreds of bodies were buried at Colonia Dignidad. We are far from Carmen Miranda territory.  Directed by Florian Gallenberger from a screenplay he co-wrote with Torsten Wenzel.

Silence (2016)

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The biggest news about the latest Martin Scorsese epic is how it’s been shut out of the awards lists, thus far at least. And it’s easy to see why. No guns, no gangsters. Plus in this minority-appeasing year it’s a film about white Christians defending their faith against mindlessness (think about where you might find that analogy at present even if it’s been Scorsese’s passion project for decades). He and Jay Cocks adapted Shusaku Endo’s 1966 novel and in terms of the director’s oeuvre it is most assuredly in the ‘one for me’ category. Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver are the Portuguese Jesuits who get smuggled into seventeenth-century Japan to find their missing mentor, priest Liam Neeson, whose eight-year old letter detailing the torture of his fellow believers at the hands of Buddhist Inquisitor (Issey Ogata) leads them to uncover hidden communities of Christians. Their presence elicits attention and villagers suffer. Garfield is taken in several times by Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka) who has taken them to the country and eventually betrays him repeatedly while constantly pleading for forgiveness in confession. It’s grim stuff and the analogy with episodes of Christ’s own suffering is made several times. Garfield is eventually forced to watch others’ torture and the film then clarifies its several narrative strands, even while posing some problems of a meta cinematic nature:  you can’t help but be reminded of Monty Python, especially as the Jap inquisitor has a high-pitched voice and Bugs Bunny teeth;  Kichijiro is clearly a folkloric trickster;  Garfield looks into water and sees both himself and Christ, indicating that faith is often a matter of extreme narcissism. And then there’s the issue of Neeson’s reappearance in garb we know he wore in Star Wars. But given the long running time, it’s nice to be able to sigh and laugh in recognition occasionally and be glad you’re not there amid this epic of endurance. Driver’s deterioration does not inspire the same humorous recognition:  it is utterly shocking. And these are the postmodern ideas that make this work, an overlay of relief from the relentless series of questions:  what is faith? Is it about God and love or is it about rosary beads and crucifixes? Is it purely about ego? (One recalls the old saw that if you replace the word ‘God’ with ‘I’ you get closer to what fanatics and believers are really about – themselves – and we all know plenty of those, don’t we. The daily churchgoers and penitents who are rifling through your pockets and avoiding paying taxes!) What is religion for? Is it a form of delusion devoid of relevance to real life? Is the Son of God more important than the Sun of God? This ideological tussle is all played out as Garfield is repeatedly taken through crowds of Japs attacking him and having the inquisitor play mind games of persuasion and then terror that take you right up to the twentieth century and ideas of psychology and marketing and war (and you’ll also remember that Shinto Buddhism was the motive force behind what the Japs did in WW2.) Ultimately, this is a work of monumental significance. However there are pacing problems and after Kundun et al one expected a more beautiful photographic immersion in this spiritual odyssey. And there are issues with the depth of the writing, reflected in Garfield’s performance which seems too simplified at times. But I don’t see how a film of philosophical dimensions and thoughtfulness will receive an award since it goes against everything that is current and it’s clear that the gifted Garfield will not be in line for an Oscar for Acting While Black. (This, too, shall pass.) A tough film for true movie believers. Apostasise Now?

The Bear (1988)

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I was moving between several countries the year this was released so I saw the trailer in many different locations but contrived to miss the film itself. It’s 1885 in British Columbia. Orphaned bear cub Youk befriends wounded older grizzly Bart (actually a Kodiak) and they have to avoid dedicated hunter Tcheky Karyo on their journey to survival. An utterly remarkable piece of work by director Jean-Jacques Annaud with exquisite cinematography by Philippe Rousselot. Now you know what bear cubs dream about. A wilderness film more than worth waiting for. Adapted from American author James Curwood’s 1916 novella The Grizzly King by Roman Polanski’s regular collaborator Gerard Brach.  Absolutely wonderful.

Sahara (1983)

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One of those films that never made it to my small town when I was a kid, I’ve finally seen the motor racing movie with Brooke Shields, the It Girl of the Eighties. From jeans to beauty, she had it made. Those eyes – those eyebrows – that mane of hair  … it didn’t really surprise to learn from Who Do You Think You Are? that the fabulous cover girl and controversial star of my childhood was descended through her paternal grandmother, an Italian aristocrat, from the Holy Roman Emperor, several Popes and Louis XVI. There seems to be a lot of cross dressing in my current viewing slate and this is no different. When Brooke arrives in the desert in 1927 for the international car race her late father dreamed of winning in his own design she needs to pass for male in this Arab world so she dresses in a linen suit, fedora and a moustache. It works, for a bit. Challenged by German driver Horst Buchholz,  she is conveniently abducted by John Rhys-Davies (back in the desert after Raiders of the Lost Ark) and falls in love with his nephew the sheik Lambert Wilson – and why not? Though it takes a while for the penny to drop with Brooke that his claim on her is physical in more ways than one. High jinks ensue as she wants to escape during a tribal war involving machine guns and cool improvised tanks and her team is being held hostage, while John Mills turns up as the sheik’s secretary, a university professor…  and there’s still a race to be won! I’m a petrol head and don’t care who knows it so I love the machines and all the high drama surrounding this landscape-driven piece and the photography by David Gurfinkel and Armando Nannuzzi is lovely. Nor do I object to this inadvertently being my third Perry Lang film in ten days! Brooke was too young to legally drive in Israel where this was shot by production team Golan-Globus (the Go Go Boys as they were known) so the Government had to give special permission. Written by the ultra-fascinating personage of James R.Silke, illustrator extraordinaire (including for Capitol Records), Grammy winner for best album cover (Judy at Carnegie Hall), novelist, the man who started up Cinema magazine in LA, producer and even a role on The Wild Bunch as an uncredited costume designer for friend Sam Peckinpah. Directed by Andrew V. McLaglen, son of Victor and all-round Hollywood action and western expert, who learned his trade with Johns Ford and Wayne starting as assistant director on The Quiet Man. There’s a jaunty score by Ennio Morricone to liven things up even more.  The tagline for this was: “She challenged the desert, its men, their passions and ignited a bold adventure.” I can confirm the veracity of this claim. However Shields’ performance earned her the record-breaking score of two Razzies for the same role – Worst Actress and Worst Supporting Actor – harsh! I thought she was pretty great as a Blue-Eyed Demon! Pretty baby indeed. Ironically Shields’ aristocrat grandmother died in a car crash in Italy travelling home from her nephew’s wedding to director Luchino Visconti’s niece. Royal in so many, many ways.

Viva Maria! (1965)

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Never did terrorists look lovelier than here, in Louis Malle’s subversive take on the buddy movie with Brigitte Bardot an IRA activist teaming up in Mexico with vaudeville performer Jeanne Moreau and getting more popular as they incorporate stripping into their musical act. They fall for the revolutionary leader Flores (George Hamilton) and join him and his comrades in trying to overthrow the regime of El Dictador (Jose Angel Espinoza). When Flores is shot Maria 1 (JM) agrees to fulfill his deathbed desire and the Marias organise a peasant army …  Malle instructed writer Jean-Claude Carriere to incorporate the tropes of the action adventure and westerns like Vera Cruz, just with female protaganists and financing was finalised only with Moreau’s participation. The two ladies got on very well together during a 16 week shoot on location and this was a huge hit in its day.  Hamilton is excellent as their male foil leading Malle to wonder why he didn’t act more. The cinematography by the great Henri Decae is sublime and Georges Delerue supplies a suitably gorgeous score. The laughs never quit!

The Devils (1971)

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A drama set in the wake of the 17th century war between Catholics and Protestants. Or, more specifically, about demonic possession, witchcraft and the denouncing of Catholic priest Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed) in Loudun, France, courtesy of some crazy-assed nuns when Cardinal Richelieu was on the prowl. Adapted from a play by John Whiting and a book by Aldous Huxley, this barely got released, given that this was the era of X-ratings and heavy censorship and there are a number of versions. This is the one where Vanessa Redgrave is the deformed nun having masturbatory hallucinations about Oliver Reed, said priest. It is horror, surrealism, politics and religion, all wrapped up in the vision of the extraordinary director Ken Russell with the splendid production design of Derek Jarman which all concludes (naturally) in a fiery conflagration. Russell was named Best Director at the Venice Film Festival despite the film being banned in Italy. A really oddly brilliant modernist essay on belief. Not easily forgotten but a bit much for 3AM. Did this really happen or was I having a particularly lucid Stilton dream? If you’re looking for an amazing read, Russell’s autobiography is just the ticket. And for some more historical background on this time, see La Reine Margot (1994), starring Isabelle Adjani, who still looks around 17 despite being in her 60s.