Mars Attacks!

Much as I enjoy Mars Attacks!, I have to concede that hyperactive parodies of cheap 1950s science fiction films aren’t for everyone. Indeed, a quick look at Rotten Tomatoes reveals some very divided opinion with many critics complaining about plot, characterisation, pacing and more. But to me, many of these criticisms miss the point somewhat.

Based on a series of Trading Cards, Mars Attacks! is an anarchic tribute to the B-Movies and exploitation films of the 1950s, and one that manages to both pastiche and parody these films without losing sight of what makes them fun in the first place.

The film has a substantial cast and quite a diversity of characters, most of which are caricatures and quite broadly played. Jack Nicholson puts in a great performance as the US president, as does Glen Close as the status obsessed first lady. Pierce Bronson provides a wonderfully stereotyped English Scientist who convinces the president of the Martians’ peaceful intentions.

The list goes on, with solid performances throughout and a cast of major names, all of whom fully understand just how silly this film is, and just how disposable their characters are.

But it’s the martians that are the real stars of this film. Although hyper-intelligent and unbelievably advanced, the little green men have employed their vast array of destructive technology to lark around like a bunch of malicious schoolkids. They are more than happy to halt the carnage for an, often puerile, joke and display a malicious sense of humour that really is disturbingly funny.

And the weapon that finally defeats them is comedy gold.

Mars Attacks! is quite a chaotic film in which style takes precedence over substance and every scene is looking towards the next joke. And, once the film gets started, the jokes come thick and fast with plenty of highlights and memorable one-liners. It’s not a great film, by any stretch of the imagination, but it is a film that knows its audience, consistently delivers and is a huge amount of fun.

It’s also the only film, as far as I’m aware, in which Tom Jones helps save the world.

Being There

Being There is a film based on the Jerzy Kosinski novel of the same name. I’ve not read the book, yet, but I certainly intend to because the film is superb.

Peter Sellers plays Chance, a naive and illiterate gardener who has spent his entire life living and working within the walls of a Washington townhouse. His life is simple — he tends the garden, he watches TV and the maid brings him meals at regular intervals.

This is all overturned when the owner of the house dies, the household is disbanded and Chance is told that he has to leave. So, dressed in his former employer’s impeccable cast-offs, he steps out into the world — which isn’t like TV.

As far as the premise goes, that is pretty much it. Chance knows nothing about the world beyond his garden, but he is able to behave like a talk-show guest and this proves to be enough when he finds himself — following an accident and a couple of misunderstandings — among the Washington elite. Here, his simple and obvious statements about gardening are taken for profound analogies and he quickly becomes the trusted confident of a dying industrialist who, in turn, is an unofficial advisor to the president.

What really makes this film remarkable is that it’s played completely straight, allowing the humour to emerge from the characters and the situations. The only joke is in the premise, yet the film is able to take this premise and repeatedly strike comedy gold. It really is a very funny film.

I had a quick look around after watching the film and there seems to be as many interpretations as to what this film is about as there are reviews. For me, though, Being There is a delightfully gentle satire about the way in which we impose our own prejudices onto others. Chance comes across as something of a blank slate whose agreeableness allows others to interpret his every utterance to mean exactly what they expect, or want, it to mean.

House

In 1977, following the release of Jaws, Toho — the studio behind Godzilla, which was a bit moribund at the time — hired Nobuhiko Ôbayashi to try to cash in on the success of Speilberg’s shark. Deciding that giant animals was already too much of a cliche, Ôbayashi instead asked his daughter, Chigumi what frightened her.

The mind of a Japanese schoolgirl is a strange and terrifying place.

House is the story of seven schoolgirls — Angel, Fantasy, Melody, Kung-Fu, Sweetie, Mac and Prof. From the names, it should be clear that these girls represent tropes rather than fully rounded characters, and this is reinforced throughout the dialogue. It’s an approach, however, that fits remarkably well with the mood of the film.

After the girls’ summer holiday plans suddenly fall through, Angel invites her friends to visit her aunt with her. Although Angel hasn’t been in touch with her aunt for many years, the older woman is both welcoming and friendly and the girls soon settle in.

And then things begin to get a bit weird.

House is essentially a haunted house film, but one that repeatedly switches from the horrific to slapstick in a manner that continually keeps you off-balance. And it’s this constant change of tone, more than anything, that makes the film such an unnervingly surreal experience.

It’s a strange, and strangely brilliant film with an oddly effective mix of genres. This collision of horror and absurdity makes for a film that is, by turns, endearing, funny and genuinely unnerving. The plot itself is reasonably straightforward, but the visual inventiveness makes for a film that really defies any attempt to draw comparisons to anything else.

I’m still haven’t fully parsed what it was that I have just watched, but it was a surreal experience and one that I will certainly subject myself to again.

Mad Heidi

Who knew that Swissploitation was a thing:

It’s all been there: Blaxploitation, Mexploitation, Sexploitation, Nunsploitation, Naziploitation. We think it’s about time for the first Swissploitation film!

Let’s take famous Swiss mountain girl Heidi, cheese and the beautiful alps and combine them with Nazi gold, chocolate and Fondue. Add a few gallons of blood and lots of fun. That’s MAD HEIDI!

Mad Heidi is a fan funded action-adventure-comedy-horror parody of the much-loved children’s storybook character Heidi. But Heidi has grown up and she’s no longer a sweet little kid.

In the near future the world is sinking into war and chaos, but Switzerland has sealed itself off as an island of the rich. A despotic cheese magnate is ruling the country with an iron fist to maintain an artificial postcard-image of Switzerland. When Heidi is abducted by brutal government troops, she must defend herself and fight her war against the cheese-fueled machinery of hate. They will soon realize they just fucked with the wrong Heidi!

I found out about this by way of Screen Anarchy, which notes that Iron Sky‘s Tero Kaukomaa will be among the producers.

And there’s a trailer

You can support the production of Mad Heidi by buying either Heidi Bonds or merchandise.

I must need another t-shirt by now.

Azumi

According to the blurb on the back of my DVD:

Serialised since 1994, Azumi, a comic by Yu Koyama, has developed an avid following; shocking and seizing readers with its audacious style and extreme violence. Now, courtesy of acclaimed director Ryhuhei Kitamura (Versus), it comes to the screen in this high octane adaptation.

Azumi (Aya Ueto) is a beautiful young girl, trained from childhood to become a fearless assassin. Now she must face the ultimate test, fighting to defeat a band of merciless warlords. Bringing together stunning swordplay, bloody fight scenes and unforgettable characters, Azumi is not to be missed.

I’m not convinced that the synopsis really captures how much is going on in this film, but there is so much going on, and so many scenes that rely on you not knowing quite what will happen next, that I really don’t want to give too much away. I will note, however, that Azumi is one of a band of assassins tasked with killing off warlords in order to bring peace to war-torn Japan.

As the blurb notes, this film is directed by Ryûhei Kitamura whose earlier film, Versus, I talked about back in May. Azumi film retains much of the same sensibility as Versus, but on a much grander scale. While Versus gave us of gangsters and zombies stuck in a forest, Azumi ups the ante immeasurably with assassins, ninjas, warlords and entire armies to contend with. It all adds up to a genuinely spectacular film.

Again, Kitamura manages to make a stylish and stylised film that feels like a two hour, action sequence. There is just enough plot injected into the proceedings to hold your attention and the characters are well rounded enough to ensure that you do care about what they are go through. There is even something of a theme as the narrative briefly touches on the way in which our history determines our choices.

All of this makes for a truly spectacular (and blood soaked) samurai epic. The film also demonstrates that, in the right hands, a straightforward story well told van be very effective indeed.

Tears of the Black Tiger

I first saw Tears of the Black Tiger way back in 2002 and was completely blown away by the film. So much so that I immediately rushed out and bought the DVD so I could watch it again. The film takes two genres that normally wouldn’t sit comfortably in the same film and seamlessly merges them into a story that is, by turns, dramatic, spectacular, moving and riotously funny.

Having been delayed by a shootout (and this is a spectacular opening scene, complete with an action replay) Dum, the titular Black Tiger and gunslinger for the outlaw Fai, arrives late for a planned elopement with his childhood sweetheart, Rumpoey. Believing that she’s been stood up, Rumpoey has returned home, upset and disheartened. So much so that she finally gives in to pressure from her father — the local governor — to marry the wonderfully oblivious Police Captain Kumjorn. Of course, with Kumjorn leading the hunt for Fai and his gang of Tigers, it’s inevitable that the paths of Kumjorn and Dum will eventually cross.

At its heart, Tears of the Black Tiger is a very effective mix of love story and Western (boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy becomes gunslinger) that then goes a step further: it’s made in Thailand and is set in Thailand.

It’s quite a surreal experience to see Asian cowboys mixing Western tropes with Eastern traditions, and one that often causes you to look twice and recognize just how much you take for granted when watching this genre of film. This is exacerbated by anachronistic feel of the film that creates a somewhat timeless feeling which defies anyone (or me, at least) to get too specific about the period of history in which the film is set. But it all works, bringing everything together in a way that feels both consistent and believable.

Then there is the colour. This is an incredibly striking film to look at, shot in gloriously bright colours, often against blatantly artificial backgrounds that enhances the (sometimes completely over the top) acting and spectacularly bloody action scenes.

Tears of the Black Tiger is a film that manages to embrace the genre tropes of both Westerns and Romantic Melodramas without allowing itself to be confined by either. The film both parodies and pays homage to both genres and still feels as fresh and as funny as it did when I first saw it.

Monty Python’s Life of Brian

For a long time I would have said that Monty Python’s Life of Brian is both the best of the Monty Python films, and the funniest film ever made. Having watched it back to back with Monty Python and the Holy Grail, however, I may have to adjust this opinion slightly. While I still think that Life of Brian is the better film, it doesn’t match the rate of jokes that the earlier film manages, opting instead for things like plot and characters.

The film tells the story of Brian Cohen (Graham Chapman), born on the same day as Jesus in a nearby stable. Growing up under Roman occupation into a somewhat idealistic young man, Brian attends the Sermon on the Mount where he notices Judith (Sue Jones-Davies, who went on to become Mayor of Aberystwyth in 2008 and who lifted the town’s ban on the film).

Judith is a strikingly attractive rebel and Brian’s hormones prompt him to join the People’s Front of Judea, one of the many independence movements striving to free Judea of both the Romans, and each other. After a series of increasingly outrageous misadventures, Brian unintentionally starts a religious movement and is hailed as the Messiah.

Monty Python’s Life of Brian is a much more directly satirical film than Monty Python and the Holy Grail and the film’s targets are much more clear-cut. Having watched the UK Labour Party tear itself apart in the 1980s, and then again more recently with the rise and demise of Corbynism over the past few years, the factionalism and infighting among the various popular and people’s fronts of Judea is still as insightful, funny and relevant as ever.

As for Brian’s followers, the sort of people who will blindly latch onto any religion and then fight over random interpretations… They’re the same as the political fanatics, aren’t they?

Over the years, I have encountered a few people who have told me that they refuse to see this film because someone else told them it’s blasphemous. This always strikes me as a pity because these are the people who most need to watch — and think about — this film.

Monty Python’s Life of Brian is a remarkable film. Beneath the broad silliness and often juvenile humour is an intelligent commentary on power, fanaticism, and all those that seek to rewrite history for their own benefit.

It’s also an incredibly funny film. While this film doesn’t have as many jokes as Monty Python and the Holy Grail, it does have plenty, many of which are much funnier and some of which left me breathless from laughing.

I still think Monty Python’s Life of Brian is the best of the Monty Python films and, off the top of my head, I can’t think of any film that is funnier. If you haven’t already seen it, you should rectify this. Immediately.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail

When I was young and foolish, I was quite a fan of Monty Python. Not only the oft repeated TV series, but also the films — especially Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

I’m old and foolish now and it recently occurred to me that I haven’t actually watched any Monty Python for several years. Now seems to be a good time to rectify this.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail is a film from which I can still quote large chunks of dialogue and yet, watching it again, it steel feels as fresh and funny as ever — if not funnier.

Graham Chapman plays King Arthur as he gathers together his Knights of the Round Table and, after a short detour in which he decides that Camelot is too silly, sends them on a quest to find the Holy Grail.

Narratively speaking, the Pythons’ TV origins are very much on display here, with a very simple plot that primarily serves as an excuse to embark on a series of medieval themed sketches, many of which are very silly indeed.

With hindsight, these sketches can be a bit hit and miss. Some of them I remembered perfectly from the last time I saw this film, others not so much, and there were some that I had completely forgotten about. That said, the jokes come so thick and so fast that the comedy never stops and I found myself laughing heartily from beginning to end.

As with much of the Pythons’ output, the silliness is perfectly timed, incredibly funny and remarkably satirical. The Pythons excelled at puncturing pomposity and poking fun at the sort of religious and political fanaticism that so often defies any kind of sense.

Even the ending has grown on me. I used to feel it was a bit of a cheat but, on this rewatch, it does fit the tone of the film and works remarkably well.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail is still one of the funniest films ever made and, even today, 35 years after it was first released, the film still feels as fresh and relevant as ever — if not more so.

Updated to note that this film was released 45 years ago. Not 35. I can’t do subtraction any more.

Box Office Victory

This amused me.

A pair of filmmakers filmed a 29 minute horror movie on Zoom (and let’s be honest — all Zoom interactions are horror stories), then rented a cinema, bought every seat and then screened the film for just the two of them.

With the Coronavirus pandemic in full swing, nothing else was being screened so this zero-budget film topped the US box office.

The film is called Unsubscribe and can be rented on Vimeo.