Category: 1980s

The Alan Clarke Collection: Disruption

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The BFI has released a mammoth 13-disc box set chronicling the life and work of Alan Clarke, the hell-raiser director/writer/producer of Scum, The Firm, Made in Britain and many TV films for the BBC.

The collection comprises two sections: Dissent, which covers 1969 – 1977, andDisruption, which covers 1978 – 1989. They can be bought as a single Blu-ray collection, which will set one back about £110, or in separate DVD box sets for £49.99 each. It’s a pity that the separate collections are only available on DVD, but the transfer of Disruption – which is the focus of this review – still looked good on my Blu-ray player.

Besides, high definition would not do much to improve the 4:3 framed grittiness of Alan Clarke’s realism. The real selling point of this collection is the remarkable scope of the material; indeed, the BFI says it is the most comprehensive package they’ve ever produced for a single filmmaker. There are 11 BBC films: Nina, Danton’s Death, Beloved Enemy, Psy-Warriors, Baal, Stars of the Roller State Disco, Contact, Christine, Road, two versions of The Firm and Elephant.

Supporting these films is a veritable wealth of introductions, commentaries, Open Air discussions and documentaries that are too numerous to be fully listed here. The special feature most worth mentioning is Alan Clarke: Out of His Own Light, a brand-new 12-part documentary that’s spread out across the six discs, providing contexts and insights that are bound to illuminate even the most venerable of Clarke’s fans.

As something of a newcomer (I’d seen only Scum and The Firm), it was the diversity of Clarke’s canon that surprised me. Like many others, I had associated him with bleak kitchen-sink fare and little else. However, Clarke has dealt with corporate drama in Beloved Enemy, revolutionary France in Danton’s Death, the Troubles in Contact and Elephant, communist defection in Nina, and governmental torture in Psy-Warriors, to name just a few.

This body of work represents a largely bygone era of creativity over commercialism among BBC commissioners, who now believe that the British public wants the likes of ‘will.i.am’ and his monstrous sartorial inelegance headlining yet another loud, flashy talent show.

To continue reading, please visit Vulture Hound: http://vulturehound.co.uk/2016/06/an-exhaustively-definitive-tribute-the-alan-clarke-collection-disruption-dvd-boxset-review/

 

The Toxic Avenger (1984)

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Toxie having the obligatory post-intercourse cigarette with his blind girlfriend Sara.

 

The Toxic Avenger is an absurd piece of filmmaking with just enough laughs and quirks to make it bearable.

I have been informed that The Toxic Avenger is one of Troma’s better films, so it was perhaps not the most appropriate introduction to their notorious catalogue that contains titles such as Nazi Surfers Must Die and Class of Nuke ‘Em High.

I was expecting gratuitous nudity and violence, and I was presented with it, but one thing I didn’t expect was the pantomime acting. There’s an array of absurd caricatures, including Bozo (Gary Schneider) a psychotic, gym frequenting idiot who enjoys running children over with his friends Slug (Robert Prichard) and Julie (Cindy Manion). Whilst at the gym, they antagonise the janitor Melvin (Mark Torgl), a ridiculously dorky moron who spends much of his screen presence squirming and baring his comedy-looking teeth. I thought there would be a good old fashioned revenge film to be found in The Toxic Avenger, and there is to a certain extent, but the relentlessly silly acting broke any modicum of investment I may have had in the characters to the point where it became almost unwatchable.

Other characters include Mayor Belgoody (Pat Ryan Jr), the corpulent, corrupt mayor of ‘Tromaville’; the German police chief (David Weiss), who accidentally exposes his closeted Nazism by compulsively performing the Nazi salute and blurting out Fuhrer!, and Sara (Andree Maranda), the Toxic Avenger’s attractive, blind girlfriend whose condition is often the subject of juvenile jokes, the most frequent one being her stick inadvertently making contact with Toxie’s crotch.

I’m sure most are familiar with the premise – during a particularly humiliating session of bullying, Melvin the janitor falls out of a window and into a barrel of toxic waste, transforming him into a super strong and super righteous mutant – The Toxic Avenger.

Performed by Mitchell Cohen, the Toxic Avenger’s, or Toxie’s, screen presence is the film’s chief merit. The prosthetics and makeup applied to Cohen’s body are very good considering the budget and Troma’s reputation. The scene in which Melvin transforms into Toxie is also appropriately painful looking and gruesome, reminding me of the transformation scene in An American Werewolf in London released three years prior.

What I found particularly funny was the Toxic Avenger’s voice. He initially only grunts and roars, I assumed he could no longer speak, however the toxic waste somehow provided him with a silky smooth mid-Atlantic accent (the voice acting provided by Kenneth Kessler). Kessler’s diction is made for radio, it never gets old hearing it emanate from such a grotesque mouth. Amusingly, whenever Toxie speaks in this accent, his back is always facing the camera; this I thought was a reflection of the budget, so I was surprised when in the latter stages of the film you see Toxie speaking directly into the camera with no technical hitches at all – a sudden influx of money, perhaps?

Like everything else in the film, the violence is amateurish. At times it reminded me of my friend and I’s home movies. Using the ‘DigitalBlue’ camera, we created whole horror film franchises including the terrifying ‘Oven Glove Man’ series and homages to the infamous Jason Voorhees of Friday the 13th. Inevitably, the two characters eventually clashed in a Freddy vs. Jason fashion, my friend was the ‘Oven Glove Man’ and I, wearing a fancy dress hockey mask, was Jason Voorhees.

If my memory is correct, the majority of the films followed the same format of a murder scene followed by a still shot of the victim covered in terrible blood and gore effects that I had applied with relish using the software’s paintbrush function. Now and again the film felt like this, there would be lengthy fight scenes with little in the way of tangible choreography and violence. The viewers’ bloodlust is only given slight satiation when Toxie deals a finishing blow and the incapacitated victim’s wounds are shown in often motionless close-up shots, some of which being very gory, particularly the scene in which Bozo runs over a teenager’s head.

With gore, scantily clad women and ridiculous campy humour, The Toxic Avenger has many earmarks of a Troma film. However, unlike most comparable films, there are enough laughs to make its 87 minutes bearable and at times somewhat entertaining.

60%

Maniac Cop (1988)

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There’s far too much plot development and far too little action in Maniac Cop. 

It is Maniac Cop’s amusing title that attracted me to the film, its tagline ‘You have the right to remain silent… forever’ also made me laugh, however William Lustig’s Maniac Cop is a classic example of all concept and no substance. A sixty-second trailer may draw you in, but the feature length production is pitifully executed.

The film opens with three murder sequences, all of which are amateurish and underwhelming. I wasn’t concerned, the film had only just begun, I was confident that it would soon shift a gear into gore hound territory; after all, the Blu-ray copy I watched was an Arrow Films release. This gear change unfortunately never happens, the filmmakers instead develop a dull, nonsensical thriller-mystery narrative rather than prove their ingenuity with corn syrup and gore. A Cormanesque producer should have economically stripped the script of generic narrative filler, emphasised its core high concept and employed Tom Savini, the highly talented and twisted SFX man responsible for the gore in films such as Dawn of the Dead (1978), Day of the Dead (1985), Friday the 13th (1980) and William Lustig’s earlier film Maniac (1980).

I can’t really be bothered to name characters or summarise plot, but I’ll try. The film opens with a young woman being chased by two hoodlums, she escapes the pair and approaches an ominous looking police officer, who, rather than serving and protecting her, strangles her to death. The film then follows Detective Frank McCrae (Tom Atkins), who believes the hoodlums’ claims that a police officer committed the crime, his evidence-bereft belief turning very quickly into adamancy based solely on his venerable cop’s instinct – this is of course all completely stupid. Bruce Campbell then turns up as Jack Forrest, a cop who is framed for the murders of the tabloid press dubbed ‘Maniac Cop’. The best performance of the film is delivered by Robert Z’Dar’s enormous jaw, it lends a palpable strength and menace to his character Matt Cordell. I am now too bored to continue writing this.

Believe it or not, William Lustig and Larry Cohen should have taken a leaf out of Troma’s book. I recently watched The Toxic Avenger, a film that, like the rest of Troma’s catalogue, tried its utmost to be completely camp and awful. Unlike the majority of Troma’s catalogue however, there are enough laughs and torrents of gore in The Toxic Avenger to make it something of a success. Maniac Cop on the other hand has no sense of humour, no excessive violence and no lashings of crass sexuality; it’s an utterly stillborn slasher film that leads its viewers through a grindingly banal narrative to a denouement that’s seriously amateurish. When the credits roll, you’ll be left wondering ‘…is that it?’

38%

Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)

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A predictable, dull film that’s merely a vehicle for Williams’s tediously overbearing comedy.

There’s a great Family Guy cutaway gag in which Peter Griffin and Robin Williams are sitting on a sofa as Peter names topics such as religion and politics for Williams to comment on. Williams does so with his trademark brand of insufferable overbearing comedy, which is filling any amount of time with incessant, frenetic rambling. Peter responds simply with an exasperated sigh before leaving for a five minute break, which prompts Williams to start yet another barrage of supposedly funny noises.

I felt much like Peter Griffin whilst watching Good Morning Vietnam. It reaffirmed my opinion that Williams was not the ‘tragicomic genius’ that so many purported him to be. Williams was much better as a straight actor.

Read a short synopsis of Vietnam and you’ll know exactly what it’s all about: the loveable family favourite Robin Williams being kooky and charming the troops but clashing with straight-laced, humourless authority figures. It’s completely predictable and completely trite. They also throw in a love interest for good measure in the form of Trinh (Chintara Sukapatana), a wholly lifeless woman whom Williams refuses to stop pestering.

Williams is never funny during his radio broadcasts, but the film repeatedly tells us otherwise, showing us scores of characters struggling to hold back their tears of laughter. So many of the supporting actors, whether they’re random troops or studio operators, were just diegetic canned laughter rather than proper characters.

Make no mistake, Robin Williams isn’t playing Adrian Cronauer, he’s playing Robin Williams at his most loud and rambling. Williams is repeatedly characterised as the loveable clown who brings the people together, it’s rather nauseating. No matter how hard the film tries, it cannot convince me that he’s either funny or charming, it only succeeds in making him very irritating. Despite this, there are some moments that raised a smile, such as the language class scenes in which he focuses on New York City street talk rather than the artificial, staid sentences of the textbooks.

Williams’s flatly developed adversaries Lt. Steven Hauk (Bruno Kirby) and Sgt. Major Dickinson (J.T. Walsh) are the typical officious military men. They develop a resentment towards him that’s so instantaneous that it’s contrived and unbelievable; they’re just narrative functions that try and make you feel sorry for Williams, the sweet crazy cookie. Both characters aggressively impose their superior ranks on Williams and the other men, reminding me of the great Machiavelli quote – ‘It is not titles that make men illustrious, but men who make titles illustrious.’  Quite frankly, the quote is wasted on a trivial, tiresomely annoying film like this.

It sometimes attempts to be a drama or ‘dramedy’ with moments of perfunctory war moralising, but ultimately Good Morning Vietnam is preoccupied with indulging Robin Williams rather than achieving anything approaching credible commentary or pathos.

45%

Glory (1989)

Glory_Head_ExplodeAfter this appropriately nasty image, ‘Glory’ becomes awfully choreographed.

Ultimately rather average.

‘Glory’ charts Colonel Robert Gould Shaw’s (Matthew Broderick) appointment to the head of a coloured regiment through to his battles with institutional racism during the American Civil War.

As a result of familiarity and the majority of the characters being quite bland, I found Glory’s central theme of racism somewhat unremarkable. The flattest characters in the film were the troops of the coloured regiment, who should be central to the film. The problem is they’re not, which is an issue. ‘Glory’ is adapted from Robert Shaw’s letters to his mother, meaning the film is naturally focused on him. Consequently, the core subjects of the story are quite underdeveloped.

Morgan Freeman gives a very Morgan Freeman performance as John Rawlins, the measured, sensible and wise Sergeant Major, characteristics so typical of Freeman’s oeuvre. Denzel Washington is more interesting as Private Trip, an angry runaway slave who’s understandably embittered with the world and everyone in it. This anger manifests itself as bullying, he’s always provoking people who threaten that chip on his shoulder. His wrath is felt particularly by Corporal Thomas Searles (Andre Braugher), an educated, well dressed man whom Trip considers an uncle tom.

Trip is a decent character and convincingly played by Washington, he conveys that pain and anger well; his Oscar winning turn is probably the best performance of the film. However Trip is, like the rest of the film, still somewhat unremarkable and overly familiar. There is one scene where Trip remarks how the regiment is ‘the only family he’s ever had’, which is so clichéd and predictable you could see it coming a mile off.

What perhaps is worst about the film are the battle scenes. While there’s a grisly headshot at the beginning and it succeeds in depicting the disgraceful death of the suicidal battle charges, it ultimately does not convince or affect. There’s far too much choreography going on, whether its soldiers exuberantly throwing themselves about under cannon fire or the almost laughable scenes of contrived mêlée where the soldiers run about rifle butting each other like in some second-rate action film.

Mark Kermode spoke of how ‘Glory’ had ‘visceral war scenes’ that were ‘long before Saving Private Ryan’. Indeed, ‘Glory’ was before ‘Saving Private Ryan’, but the latter heralded a new level of brutal realism, after its awesome 169 minutes you feel completely battered and depressed. I am very surprised that Kermode would compare this tame piece of work with Spielberg’s stark WWII epic.

Despite my reservations, I wouldn’t say ‘Glory’ is a bad film, it goes along just fine. Although I thought there should’ve been more focus on the black characters, it is Shaw’s struggle to control and maintain his new regiment that’s probably the most interesting part of the film. Although a compassionate man, he realises that he is now an authority figure, he must nurture a veneer of unwavering stoicism and power so the men respect and obey him. This means he must adhere to the rules of the time, including the ugly, violent ones. I was most engaged when watching Shaw wrestle with the officialism and racism of his regiment, however the men he commanded were trite and boring.

While it may have been more profound in 1989, I felt that the film, although competent, was rather neutered and covered well-trodden ground.

 69%

Threads (1984)

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Devastating film.

Even to those who know of Threads‘ reputation, the film still packs a punch that leaves you winded and miserable. It is a comprehensive and compelling insight into nuclear warfare that brutally highlighting the abject foolishness of MAD – the apt acronym for Mutually Assured Destruction.

The film focuses on young couple Jimmy (Reece Dinsdale) and Ruth (Karen Meagher) and their respective families. Ruth’s pregnant, so they’ve decided to do the proper thing by marrying and moving in together. Of course, their plans are never realised. The cast consists of unknown actors, which is a smart move because any household names may have detracted from the reality of it.

Although it is a drama, much of the film adopts a documentary format. Informative captions are typed across the screen by what sounds like a teletyper, producing that loud, mechanical sound as it ominously details the strategic and economic importance of Sheffield and the rapidly worsening international relations. It is this documentary realism that gives Threads a disturbing authenticity that further adds to the tension preceding the inevitable attack.

When the bomb finally strikes, the preamble that has led to it ensures that it remains powerful even if the special effects aren’t spectacular. I was actually pleasantly surprised by the special effects, the image of the mushroom cloud rising above the screams and hysteria of Sheffield is haunting, albeit lacking in scope compared to that infamous sequence in Terminator 2. It certainly blows ‘The Day After’, a similar American production, out of the water.

‘In an urban society, everything connects. Each person’s needs are fed by the skills of many others. Our lives are woven together in a fabric, but the connections that make society strong, also make it vulnerable.’

‘Threads’ opens with this profound piece of narration from Paul Vaughan, explaining its title and foreshadowing the abject horror that’s to come. It is after the bomb strikes that the viewer really begins to understand what it looks like when this vulnerable fabric of society is absolutely shattered. Once humanity has their veneer of civilisation destroyed, they become desperate and animalistic. Money becomes worthless, the new currency is food, food such as stale bread and raw meat, and people work frantically for it. Crops are scarce and the diminishing fuel reserves lead to the use of hoes rather than combine harvesters. Within a few years of the attack, the British population reaches medieval numbers of 4 – 11 million.

These damning facts and figures either appear in the aforementioned captions or are narrated by Vaughan, whose diction is comparable to Laurence Olivier’s in the brilliant Thames Television series The World at War.

Threads is a trenchant argument for nuclear disarmament. What an obnoxiously reckless species we’d be if we allowed nuclear warfare to destroy our planet. Imagine if some extra-terrestrial tourist with knowledge of Earth’s abundance of natural beauty, culture and technology landed on our planet only to find themselves amidst a nuclear winter, what a shameful task explaining ourselves to them would be.

We’ve all seen depressing, harrowing films, but the utter nihilism that is explored in such grinding detail here will make the idea of merely existing in a functioning, productive society seem positively Utopian.

82%

Blade Runner (1982)

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Admittedly this shot makes Blade Runner look quite good, but trust me, there is little beyond the iconic imagery.

Fatally overrated, this film is remarkably dull

Blade Runner is nothing more than a visual spectacle, and its special effects are quickly failing the test of time, which means it’s swiftly losing the only feature that could be considered somewhat redeeming. The film is remarkably flat, in terms of both its characters and narrative; it is completely unengaging in its entirety. Deckard (Harrison Ford) is assigned to find and kill ‘replicants’, which are ‘biorobots’ that have been declared illegal on Earth. The replicants effortlessly blend into society as they look and behave exactly like humans, their cover is blown only through detecting their lack of empathy.

Many people revel in the many different cuts and theories of ‘Blade Runner’, it’s got a prominent cult following. That’s fair enough, but on initial viewing I was left bored stiff – when it comes to sinister cybernetic organisms, it doesn’t get better than ‘The Terminator’ (1984)

This clinical, emotionally detached approach is common in many of Ridley Scott’s earlier work; the whole crew of ‘Alien’ were forgettable, much like the cast of ‘Blade Runner’. I didn’t sympathise with or fear any character, leading to its conventional, tired plot lacking any device to thrill, entertain or ultimately keep me watching. It took an act of will and devotion towards my friend (who is a fan of BR) to endure the whole thing.

I have been aware of the film and its reputation for years, however I had never been that interested in seeing it, but I felt obliged to see it, I’d always get looks and utterances of mock outrage when I said I hadn’t seen it. Well, now I have, and next time I can reply with ‘Yes, I have seen it, and it’s one of the most overrated films I have ever seen.’

50%