Tuesday, 6 December 2016

The Undertaker Vinegar Syndrome Blu-ray Review

As part of the Vinegar Syndrome Black Friday secret releases, VS dropped the surprise release of "The Undertaker" one of the last films starring the cult legend that is Joe Spinell.
What is particularly interesting is that bootlegs and a Code Red DVD have been floating around, but this is the closest to a complete original cut of the movie, that seems to have never been released in this version. So is this a lost masterpiece of exploitation? Not quite, but it is still very interesting nevertheless and a must-own for fans of Spinell.
The films starts in the style of many other 80s efforts, with a woman stuck on the road with her car broken down, immediately this feels like comfortable terrain. A scene shortly afterwards has a teacher who looks the same age as her students trying to teach an anthropology lesson about "NECROPHI

LIA" she scrawls across the chalk board. So this seems to fit into "bad movie" terrain for sure, so popcorn at the ready for a fun slasher movie.
What comes after a slow and steady build up are some rather graphic moments of violence that are incredibly well done and quite startling.
However the cracks of an unfinished project do start to show, with plot strands and loose ends never really being tied up, especially once the investigation is introduced. What results is a film that is not quite gory enough to be a true gore classic, not quite bad enough to be a party movie, and not quite atmospheric enough to be a cult midnight movie. The end result is a curious and intermittently fascinating oddity of a film. One that I definitely enjoyed and was glad to watch, but will not revisit as often as others.
The biggest draw however is of course Joe Spinell. Although at times he sounds like Usual Suspects-era Benicio del Toro in his drawling voice; and he is clearly unwell/drunk or both in some scenes; he does have a lot of fun in this movie, a brilliant breaking of the fourth wall being a particularly unforgettable moment. Fans of Spinell need to see this movie for those moments alone. 
The VS package comes filled with a very good commentary track and interview; a rather pointless director's introduction (they either say too much or too little-this one says too little) and even has a booklet! Top this off with a limited edition coffin sleeve and you have got a production that tops the standards of the Criterion Collection (especially since they started using fold out pamphlets). So well done VS, you've made me very happy with the words "lost Joe Spinell has been found".

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Dolemite: A Total...Experience

On the opening track of Rudy Ray Moore's 1970 album "Eat Out More Often", he sings about a character called Willie Green, and a "bad motherfucker" called Dolemite. From these humble (and hilarious) beginnings, the character of Dolemite was born. In 1974 Rudy decided to make the transition from stage to screen, and decided to gather friends together to make Dolemite. Rudy did not direct, but instead enlisted D'Urville Martin (who also played Willie Green) who had some mainstream experience acting in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and Rosemary's Baby. However that Hollywood background is not particularly clear here-this is clearly the work of enthusiastic amateurs, but is all the more brilliant for it.
Vinegar Syndrome are kind enough to provide two versions of the film, the original widescreen version, and a full-frame version which allows the production to look even more amateurish as it is the "boom mic" version, which speaks for itself. The disc comes packed with extras, more on which later...
The film itself (which has a stunning transfer) opens in prison, with two flashbacks- one of which having a "wobbly screen" dream, the other just simply cuts to the action. But what action! If you want to see wooden acting FBI agents beaten into the trunk of a car, this film is for you. After the dust settles we realise that Queen Bee has provided evidence to suggest Dolemite was originally framed, but he will have to go out into society to prove his innocence. Quite a spectacular decision by the prison authorities there. This is then coupled with the warden stating "only four people know you are going to be released" followed 30 seconds later by Queen Bee exclaiming that "she can't wait to tell everyone that Dolemite is going to be released". Clearly she wasn't listening.
Just in case you had any concerns about the quality of the film, you next have THE BEST TITLE SEQUENCE EVER. Seriously. The music is breathtaking, the colours Funkadelic, and it appears to be framed by shots of Dolemite's orgasm face at the start, followed by his post-orgasm face at the end. Unintentional? Probably, but beautiful all the same.
Once Dolemite gets back to being a pimp, he discovers the "Dolemite Girls" have all been trained in karate (at the CHUCK NORRIS KARATE STUDIO we later find out). He then sets off to find out who killed Little Jimmy, with his harem of martial arts trained prostitutes to aid him. Along the way we have some wonderful scenes, but I'm not going to describe them- much of the fun of this movie is finding out what mad ideas the team have dreamt up.
There is a vague attempt to make the plot mirror contemporary events by referencing Watergate (although by the time of the film's release Nixon was already out of office, so it dates the filming to before August 1974) and having a white mayor behaving in a rather Watergate manner- did I detect a "deep throat" voice on the phone there? Considering Tom Bradley was mayor of LA at this time, is this a conscious decision to emulate the "white vs black" trope of many blaxploitation films, showing how Dolemite is the hero against corrupt white authority? But hey man, I'm getting too heavy- this is a film to enjoy the surface of. The dialogue is perfection "rat soup eating honky mother-fucker", the 70s outfits are wonderful, and the decor...the hairstyles...what can be said?
All in all the film itself is probably the most fun Blaxploitation movie I've seen since Detroit 9000, and would be a fantastic double-bill with Massacre Mafia Style, a film which shares many similarities.
The last words of the film are "Just as my name is Dolemite, I shall return"...and thank God he did.

So onto the extras...aside from the aforementioned alternative version, there is a 25 minute documentary on the making of the movie, with a lot of interview material with the man himself, and provides a great background to the movie and his career. There is a highly informative commentary from Rudy Ray Moore's biographer Mark Jason Murray. As with most commentaries, it can't help but cross over some of the information found in the documentary, but delves into more detail. It's slightly on the dry side, especially with the fun visuals (this film cries out for a "Hysteria Continues" style track). This is followed with an interview with Lady Reed (Queen Bee) surrounded by her albums that she released with Rudy. She shares many fond memories of Rudy and talks about what it was like being on the road. There is then a short locations featurette and some glorious trailers. The only thing missing to make this feel like a Criterion/Masters of Cinema disc is a booklet with contemporary reviews/adverts; but this feels like a package made with true love for the film.

So, why are you still reading this? This movie is essential. Buy it here, now: https://vinegarsyndrome.com/shop/dolemite/

Monday, 25 April 2016

Flatpack Film Festival, A Personal View

Last weekend marked the tenth anniversary of Birmingham's own film festival, the wonderful Flatpack. I've attended the festival sporadically over the years, but this year I tried to catch as much of it as I could. A combination of work and family life prevented me from throwing myself into the whole festival, so this is not a review, merely an account of the glimpses I managed to snatch over the weekend.

My journey through the festival began on an immediate high. Millenium Point housed five animations and a selection of drawings from Boris Labbé, a French artist staging his first UK exhibition. According to the friendly guide, Boris himself had just been in the exhibition calibrating the colours of "Rhizome" a ten minute animation exhibiting in a dark room on a large screen. A simple idea of a range of shapes seemingly trapped in a whirlwind as the camera pulls further and further back. Set to a piece of beautiful minimalist music, I could have sat and stared at this all day. The other smaller pieces were great fun, such as the Bruegel-esque parody "Il(s) tourne(nt) en rond" and the mind-boggling synchronisation of music and visuals "Cinétique" (think Autechre's Gantz Graf video). I only wish I was able to meet the man himself and check out "Any Road" but it was not to be.
My second stop was an installation next door called "Diafilmprojecktor" which showed an eighty-second clip of "Bring me the Head of Alfredo Garcia" on 24 slide projectors, with no audio, just the clattering of slides as the sound. Although this idea sounded intriguing on paper, the effect was not particularly moving or inspiring, but I think it compared badly to Atom Egoyan's all-consuming installation of "Steenbeckett" which I became slightly obsessed with when it was in the MAC.
After this is was time for a triple-bill of feature films at the Electric. First up was a documentary "The 1000 Eyes of Dr Maddin" which was poorly attended for such a wonderful screening (and a UK debut too). It featured interviews with Kenneth Anger and John Waters as well as a wealth of behind the scene footage of Maddin at work, all of which was incredibly valuable. Hearing Anger explain his chest tattoo of "Lucifer" being because Lucifer is the bringer of light was a wonderful doorway into the films, as was Maddin's own annoyance at how cinema-goers cannot treat film in the same way as listening to an album. Such thoughts opened the door to the screening of the enticing, exhausting and maddening "The Forbidden Room". Luckily I have seen this film before, as the heat combined with a general tiredness after a week at work to make me snooze through about twenty minutes of it. However that just added to the trippy atmosphere to wake up to vampire bananas and strange going-ons with moustaches.
The madness continued with the Shock & Gore Trash Film Night screening of Future War, which was pure nonsense, very similar to the previous week's screening of The Room, but with less cutlery flying overhead. This was a raucous bit of fun which meant that me and my friends spent most of the weekend shouting "SPACE JESUS" at each other at random moments. If you thought Jurassic World had shite special effects; and that the problem with sci-fi movies was that cyborgs aren't fat enough, then this movie is for you.
The night ended with a trip to Centrala, but there wasn't too much happening except for nice beers and a mobile of the moon, so it was time to end the night and head home.

Due to family commitments and having purchased Rob Delaney tickets a few months previous, Saturday was a bit of a non-starter, but I managed to explore the Ikon's "Slow Light" films, for about 15 minutes, until I got a bit bored. So I wandered over to the Victoria to see "Boom!" which was much more fun. The Brothers Mcleod were hilarious, and their programming of short films was joyous, although the less said about the Japanese animation the better. If ever I'm in Stratford-upon-Avon I'd love to check them out. Their own animation "The Inverted Peak" was pretty great too.

With babysitting arranged (thanks Mom and Dad) Sunday was all set to be the biggest day of them all, and it truly was. Arriving at 10am in time to check out the Gas Hall exhibition, which ranged from the memorable (Flatpack memorablia), the melancholic (the Projectionists), the historic (Jacey Cinemas amazing scrapbook) and finally the bit rubbish (some photos of shoppers in the Bull Ring). However we weren't there for that. It was a guided tour of lost cinemas of Birmingham by Ben Waddington that was the main attraction. So out we trudged into the city, visiting places that smelled of piss and bins. But what sights we saw, charting magical pathways through lost spaces, some of which were tantalisingly close. It gave the desire to start phoning landlords and pretending to have a desire to rent these spaces. This was my first walking tour by Ben, and hopefully will not be the last.
Arriving back at the Gas Hall just in time for another journey into the lost, this time the world of the 28mm projector. Silent movies from the collections of Chris Bird and Brian Giles, with lovely accompaniment by Meg Morley. This really brought tears to my eyes. I have a fascination with silent cinema anyway, and to see animations and Harold Lloyd two-reelers that basically only exist in these single copies was an incredible privilege. The fact that most of the footage shown wasn't "train-spotter"-like, but actually entertaining, made it all the more of a rich experience. Guy Maddin has recently released a series of short films called "Seances" with the idea that once they have been seen once, they will be lost forever. Well this wasn't an art project, it really seemed unlikely that I would see either these films or this format ever again. Truly the magic of cinema.
This theme continued in the afternoon, but it was now the Magick of cinema thanks to John Bradburn organising a selection of short films with an occult theme. The first film was a 16mm screening of "Invocation" by Amy Halpern. A pair of hands reaching out of the dark to the flicker and click of the projector. This set a high standard which was difficult to maintain consistently. Wormwood Star started well but soon became a bit repetitive. The problem with having films inspired by Kenneth Anger, is once you have seen the master at work, his acolytes seem like pale imitations. However there was enough to sustain the interest. The most divisive piece was the last, a portrait of an Irish artist called Caoimhin Breathnach. The footage was set to vocal performances that sounded like a Mike Patton/Yamatsuka Eye duet, which drew a lot of giggles from the audience (and audible groans from my wife who was worried the film would never end). I was intrigued by the film and wished to find out more.
The weekend ended with a crescendo and a circle. It started in the Electric with a documentary, and ended with one too. This was exacerbated by the fact that John Waters appeared in it and Lucifer was discussed in much detail. Sympathy for the Devil told the story of the "Process Church of the Final Judgement" a cult that spread from London throughout America in the late 60s. In the "process" it became inextricably linked to the Manson murders, and eventually morphed into an animal charity by the mid 70s. This was an amazing journey, heightened by the director and a member of the Church being in the crowd and being very generous with their time afterwards.

A weekend of secrets, magick, forbidden places and lost worlds. That seemed to be the narrative leaping out of these screenings. I left the weekend tired but refreshed, and I am already counting the days until next year. Flatpack is Birmingham's best kept secret (in spite of national radio coverage) and is particularly brilliant and bringing short films to my attention. Long may it reign.

Thursday, 25 February 2016

Malatesta's Carnival of Blood (Arrow blu-ray review)

Arrow's new concept the "American Horror Project" is to rescue obscure and unusual films from the history of grindhouse cinema. The first volume is based around three films that are covered in Stephen Thrower's brilliant "Exploitation USA" which is handy, as many of the films discussed have been difficult to see in the UK.
The first up is "Malatesta's Carnival of Blood" a film that has been missing for a number of years and has only once been released on DVD in the USA back in 2003. This new version is loaded with extra features including a commentary and interviews with crew. Directed by Christopher Speeth, who did not go on to have a serious career in the movies after this horror film, this is a very interesting film.
The story of the film is a simple one- a family get work at a carnival to try to locate a missing relative. As expected, the carnival hides a nasty secret buried underneath, and bloodletting ensues. However this is not a bodycount movie, full of slasher set-pieces, the special effects are cheap and the gore is minimal. This is not what this film is about, if you get your kicks through horror that way, then this film is not for you. If you like zoning out on strangeness rather than genuine fear and horror, then this should keep you interested.
There is much to recommend about this film- the set design is fantastic, sculpted from re-purposed car parts and junk which create some of the films best visual effects. The sound design also is wonderful, a "fear" track of musique concrete style bassy noises and screams (being a noise fan I urgently want a copy of the soundtrack dialogue-free!). The location of the carnival provides an eery background for the film, especially the rickety rollercoaster that looks as if it is about to collapse at any moment.
Unfortunately these elements are hampered by poor "off broadway" style acting that lends the production a theatrical aura which prevents the film from being a true classic. It's interesting to note that one of the cast worked on the wonderful Andy Milligan film "Fleshpot on 42nd Street", and whilst not as hysterical here, the acting has a Milligan-eque amateurness throughout.
There are moments of pure wonder to the film that remind the viewer of Kenneth Anger's magickal evocations, and the set pieces sometimes feel like they slip into the full on darkness of "Last House on Dead End Street" but never quite reach it. The overall tone is strange zonal netherworld, where the film never leaves the carnival, and it feels like a strange cyclical nightmare. The final shot of the film is also truly magical.
As for the rest of the package, the interviews are fascinating, and Richard Hartland Smith's commentary is informative, but slightly over-egged in his enthusiasm to suggest that the movie was a possible influence on Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I couldn't see that myself (in fact it felt closer in style to TCM2) but he makes some interesting connections. The package is wrapped up with a great Stephen Thrower introduction who explains the best frame of mind to watch this movie.
So is this film for you? If you enjoy trippy hallucinatory films like Death Bed and can accept the slightly pantomine amateurness of the proceedings, then I would say dive in and enjoy! I most certainly did, and will be revisiting it again once enough beers are consumed during a night of bad movies with friends.

Monday, 18 May 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Feminist Chauvinism of Mad Max:Fury Road


So, those pesky MRAs will tell you that the new Mad Max film was "going to be a feminist piece of propaganda posing as a guy flick" (http://www.returnofkings.com/63036/why-you-should-not-go-see-mad-max-feminist-road) and that it will "force a lecture on feminism down your throat" (ibid.) 
With such 'concerns' in mind, I headed to my local Cineworld, sat in a shiny D-Box seat and was thrown around for two hours in a joyous roller-coaster. Besides trying not to shout "wow" at the gorgeous visuals, I kept my ears peeled for any feminist posturing, just in case the MRAs had got things right for once. The plot centres around the escape of a group of "wives" fleeing with Imperator Furiosa, played by the sublime Charlize Theron. The first proper look of the group looks a little like this:

Which to be fair reminded me more of a Russ Meyer shot rather than a scene from the latest Andrea Arnold film. Certainly the 'feminism' seemed questionable, and this was picked up by Mark Kermode in his review of the movie- "More problematically, for all its avowed feminist credentials Miller’s film can’t quite reconcile its horrors-of-patriarchy narrative with its exotic fashion-shoot depiction of “The Wives”, leaving its gender politics weirdly conflicted." (http://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/may/17/mad-max-fury-road-review-mark-kermode) 
This all left me confused, what is a poor simple film-goer to think? Is it a feminist essay or is it an exotic fashion shoot? Luckily for us it seems that George Miller is a little more intelligent than both Kermode and the MRAs that attack him on either side...
Fury Road needs to be examined first of all from the sense of expectation. The early trailers were certainly designed to fire up testosterone and appeal to the same 'masculine' sense as the Fast and Furious franchise or a Michael Bay film. So the above image would be totally expected, and mirrors the first appearance of Megan Fox in the first Transformers movie (not the good animated one, the rubbish live action one). This conforms to our expectations, but is in fact a hideously clever image to use. It lulls the viewer into thinking that the film is "by the numbers", remember at this stage we do not even know that Nux is about to undergo some major character development...
In fact the film continues to subvert expectation by the death and subsequent foetus removal of The Splendid Angharad, a highly unexpected moment given the establishment of birth pangs pointing to a later scene of pregnancy during a car chase. 
So the viewer thinks they know what they are getting, then George decides to develop the characters of the surviving wives, and makes Furiousa an even tougher character than the eponymous Max himself. Perhaps this isn't all that different to Russ Meyer after all...
Anyway, my point being this: you cannot remove one scene from the wider context of a film and claim that it holds the entire key to the movie. The above image looks like a classic piece of Grindhouse cinema, then the film demonstrates that men can objectify women when they first see them. But women are as strong as men in a variety of ways, that actually cinema can play with these gender roles and make us reflect on our own views. George Miller is not a chauvinist, Fury Road is not a piece of feminist propaganda. It cleverly recognises the rules of the action film, then bends and sometimes breaks them. For this reason it should be applauded.