Wednesday, 29 January 2014

The Kentucky Fried Movie - John Landis - 1977

Having successfully pulled off his debut movie, ultra cheap King Kong spoof Schlock, comedy jack-of-all-trades John Landis teamed up with Jim Abrahams and the Zucker Brothers to create The Kentucky Fried Movie, a low budget series of shorts, sketches and general silliness somehow strung together to create an 83minute movie. Loosely structured as a main feature preceded and followed by a succession of adverts, newsreels and previews, the film doesn’t really form any sort of coherent whole, but there is enough charm bound up in the outrageous anarchy and enough jokes that haven’t dated to ensure that when one gag falls flat a better one is always around the corner. The main feature filling most of the middle half hour is A Fistful of Yen, a loose spoof of Bruce Lee’s famous Enter the Dragon by way of James Bond that sends skilled yet clownish martial artist Mr Loo (Evan C. Kim in his biggest role before The Dead Pool) to infiltrate the lair of criminal mastermind Dr. Klahn (Bong Soo Han) with increasingly silly results. The story is filled with delightful little comic asides – the human klaxon is a particular standout – but for those who haven’t seen Enter the Dragon a lot of the intended humour doesn’t register and after a half hour of manic two-to-four minute sketches Landis fails to maintain the same pace and so it inevitably starts dragging. The shorts before and after vary from the unexpectedly hilarious – the slow build up to the gag in the cinema feel-around segment pays off in spades, to the deliberately trashy – Catholic High School Girls in Trouble throws boobs and puns around with equal abandon, to the plain weird – the Buddhist Monk beer advert and the JFK assassination board game just aren’t funny. Meanwhile well aimed spoof sketches like star-heavy disaster movie trailer That’s Armageddon give Landis the chance to put star names on the poster (George Lazenby as The Architect! Donald Sutherland as The Clumsy Waiter!) even though they barely have a minute of screen time each. The fairly equal hit and miss ratio means that The Kentucky Fried Movie will never become a classic, but as an experimental comedy from a gang of rising comics seeing how outrageous they can be, the film is a lot of fun.

Burke and Hare - John Landis - 2010

Having been away from directing features for several years the return of cult comedy horror director John Landis was always going to be something to look forward to and on paper the dark story of Edinburgh body snatchers William Burke and William Hare should be a perfect fit for the directors oeuvre. It is a particular shame therefore to report that Burke and Hare is really rather mediocre; not bad by general standards but considering this is the man who brought us An American Werewolf in London, that in itself is a disappointment. The real characters brutally murdered sixteen people during a ten-month killing spree in 1828, selling the bodies to associates of noted lecturer Dr Robert Knox, but Landis completely misjudges the tone of the story and rather than going for the blend of horror and black comedy that made Werewolf so effective, the director opts instead to make a knockabout farce that is more reminiscent of his low-budget beginnings but with the subversive anarchy replaced with childish gags about porridge, poo and bottoms. Reimagining the infamous murderers are comedy man of the moment Simon Pegg as a sweetly earnest Burke and motion-capture king Andy Serkis as a garrulous Hare, both of who are clearly having great fun clowning around a beautiful city for a cinematic legend but it quickly becomes clear they are simply skating on rather thin material and any laughs that they do earn come as much from pre-established audience affection as they do from good material. In support Landis has rustled up a cast that’s starry to the point of distraction – Bill Bailey’s loquacious hangman is a highlight, Ronnie Corbett’s puffed-up militia captain less so – but only the reliable Tom Wilkinson is allowed to take the material seriously and bring some weight to the devious Dr Knox. Subplots involving feeble attempts to create a prototype Scottish mafia and a pre-feminist production of Macbeth with Isla Fisher's sweet but unconvincing love interest are all mildly amusing but nothing lifts the film into the realm of Landis’ classics, making this overdue return feel like a wasted opportunity. On the plus side the old city of Edinburgh is shot to gloriously atmospheric perfection, proving that Landis does still know what to do with camera. Just not it seems with a story.

Thursday, 23 January 2014

In Her Shoes - Curtis Hanson - 2005

What next for Curtis Hanson, director of L.A. Confidential and 8 Mile? Surely he would be turning to a complexly layered drama about human beings at their lowest ebb, not… not a romantic comedy starring Cameron Diaz? And yet here is In Her Shoes, a Hanson romantic comedy/drama that, despite a very shaky first hour that has little to appeal to anyone not middle-aged and female, eventually blossoms to reveal the sort of beautifully nuanced layers we’ve come to expect from the director’s work. Opening by profiling two close but sharply contrasting sisters – sexy party animal Maggie (Diaz) and career driven frump Rose (Toni Collette) – Hanson initially appears determined to reduce his leads to the sort of shallow female stereotypes that continue to plague Hollywood rom-coms; Maggie flounces around showing off her ridiculously long legs at every opportunity and being thoroughly disagreeable to anyone who tries to help her whilst Rose is left running after her in exasperation, gaining no sympathy since every effort is clearly a waste of time. However once the sisters have ‘the biggest argument ever’ and go their separate ways the film does finally start to grow up, the stars begin to blossom and even the grumpiest, most uncomfortable man in the audience may wake up and not be completely bored senseless. Diaz is not normally the strongest of actresses but when supported by the effervescent Shirley MacLaine, old Hitchcock crony Norman Lloyd and a veritable Greek chorus of hilarious old biddies, the star shines for real, making what could have been a predictable redemption journey into something sweet and believable. Toni Collette meanwhile, once she has a chance to do more than awkwardly sulk, proves once again why she is one of the finest character actresses of her generation, turning Rose from a Bridget Jones stereotype into a genuine person struggling to cope with insecurity problems that everyone can all relate to in some way. The second hour isn’t without fault – the wicked stepmother storyline never quite rings true whilst listening to Diaz massacre classic poetry is simply painful – but at the moments of truth both actresses deliver, Collette in particular will break hearts with her plaintive delivery of a single line revelation, turning what started as something inexcusably shallow and dull into something deeper that sits well with Hanson’s back catalogue. And they don’t even waste too much time talking about shoes.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Once Upon a Time in Mexico - Robert Rodriguez - 2003

Completing his unofficial Mariachi trilogy, Robert Rodriguez Once Upon a Time in Mexico crams more action, comedy and really cool characters into one hundred minutes than most directors would attempt in two and a half hours. The film bears little resemblance to Once Upon a Time in the West, its great Spaghetti Western predecessor but given that Rodriguez' approach seems to be simply a case of hurling absolutely everything possible at the wall its hardly surprising that not everything sticks. It says something for his ability as a storyteller that Rodriguez manages to keep the ridiculously complicated plot, in which every single character double and often triple crosses nearly every other character, clear when it moves at such a frenetic pace, but the downside is that not all of the characters get the attention they deserve. In his biggest cast yet Rodriguez has an embarrassment of riches at his disposal so its a shame to see great character actors like Willem Dafoe, Eva Mendes and Mickey Rourke all wasted in the pursuit of a slick runtime. On the plus side though Antonio Banderas, returning as the mysterious El Mariachi along with new sidekicks Marco Leonardi and Enrique Iglesias (yes him), is terrific fun: playing great music and pulling off amazing stunts (including the best use of the guitar case gun yet), Banderas is undoubtedly the coolest assassin ever to appear since Charles Bronson's Harmonica, a figure Rodriguez has been increasingly aping ever since El Mariachi. However much like Clint Eastwood’s prominence was suddenly threatened by the arrival of Eli Wallach in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Banderas frequently runs the risk of being upstaged by a typically eccentric performance from Johnny Depp as the deranged, corrupt Agent Sands. Head-scratching and hilarious in equal measure, Sands stumbles around the Mexican streets in a series of ridiculous disguises, hogging the limelight to such an extent that when Rodriguez writes in an unexpectedly dark twist, the change of tone almost puts a dampener on the whole film. With everything shot, chopped and scored (as Rodriguez likes to put it) to such a frenetic degree the Mariachi trilogy with never be taken seriously as the Westerns that inspired it but with such obvious debts to Sergio Leone already Rodriguez only needs to learn something of the great man's more relaxed pace and then with characters this cool and entertaining he could be the one to take the genre forward into a new century.

Desperado - Robert Rodriguez - 1995

Steve Buscemi walks into a lowlife Mexican bar and gleefully riles the locals with the story of a mythical mariachi and his guitar case full of guns wiping out the patrons of a similar (but not quite as good) bar in one flurry of hyper-kinetic action. Heralding the arrival in Hollywood of both Antonio Banderas’ legendary guitar swinging assassin and Robert Rodriguez’ unique brand of manic mexploitation, Buscemi’s perfectly written and performed opening monologue redefined cool for a whole new generation. Having successfully turned his debut film El Mariachi into a cult hit, Rodriguez sensibly played it safe when moving to Hollywood and poured everything he had learnt and a much bigger budget into Desperado, a semi remake/sequel to Mariachi that replaces the unknown Carlos Gallardo with rising star Banderas and unleashes him on a new town with a much darker purpose that just playing good guitar. The negligible plot, which boils down to the Mariachi blasting away scores of disposable goons whilst big bad drug dealer Bucho (Joaquim de Almeida) chews the scenery and glowers a lot, is frankly a little repetitive especially for those who have already seen all of this in Mariachi, but its Rodriguez’ flair for turning the genre’s many absurdities into something cool that make Desperado such good fun. The charismatic Banderas turns in a tremendously dark and brooding performance as the Mariachi, storming through the fights with granite intensity but carefully finding soulful moments, especially in a sweet little subplot with a boy and guitar, to let the audience in on the darkness that drives him. From the iconic slow-motion entrance accompanied by Buscemi’s narration to the raw animal chemistry he generates with Salma Hayek’s lusciously sexy Carolina, Banderas is so naturally cool that he rises above whatever inexplicable plot twists are thrown at him. The action scenes are a haze of kinetically overblown violence that can never be taken seriously but largely Rodriguez knows when to take his foot off the throttle and stop the carnage getting out of hand, displaying a fine balance between gleeful excitement and shrewd control that could make him the natural successor to Sam Peckinpah. Desperado is a very impressive calling card and will always live on as a cult favourite but given Rodriguez’ obvious instinct for anything cool, it is a perhaps surprising that in a succession of equally enjoyable mexplotiation movies, the director has never really moved on and developed on that promise.