Death Race 2000

Thomas Paine was a political activist, writer and revolutionary. He authored the two most influential pamphlets at the start of the American Revolution and inspired the patriots in 1776 to declare independence from Great Britain. After starting one revolution, he moved to France and became deeply involved in the French Revolution.

In Death Race 2000, Thomasina Paine leads the resistance to the authoritarian Bipartisan Party which controls the economically collapsed US. This party is led by the cult-like “Mr. President” who has merged politics and religion to form a police state in which the masses are kept distracted by the bloody spectacle of the annual Transcontinental Road Race. This is a coast to coast race in which points are scored not just for coming first, but also for the number of people killed along the way.

The film covers the 20th such race and the five contestants include Frankenstein (David Carradine), the only two-time winner, and “Machine Gun” Joe Viterbo (Sylvester Stallone), his rival. Also in the mix, this time around, is Paine’s resistance who are targeting the race for reasons that become clear as the film progresses.

Death Race 2000 is very much of its time, and yet it still manages to strike a chord that is relevant today. The film is gratuitously violent, with much of the violence played for laughs. It is also unashamedly exploitative and, being produced by Roger Corman, is under no illusions as to what sort of film it is.

The film does, however, retain a very dark sense of humour and a satirical streak that suggests that the US is heading in a direction in which violent sports and terrible television can be used to distract the masses into accepting structural inequality and near religious devotion to a leader.

I was going to make a remark about the current US president at this point. Given, however, that this film was released all the way back in 1975, it points to Trump being less of an aberration and more the result of forty-plus years of dysfunctional politics.

In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale

Uwe Boll never ceases to amaze me. He is a notoriously terrible director, responsible for some famously bad films, and yet he still manages to attract people like Jason Statham, Ron Perlman, Ray Liotta and even Burt Reynolds to join his projects.

And so to In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale, in which a farmer named Farmer (Jason Statham) sets out to rescue his kidnapped wife (Claire Forlani) and avenge the death of his son. To do this, he must fight the Krugs, which are basically orcs controlled by the evil wizard, Gallian (Ray Liotta).

Along the way, stuff happens, a plot twist leaps from nowhere and the good guys fight the bad guys. It it really isn’t worth going into any more detail than that because this is a very silly film. But if you embrace the fact that pretty much nothing is going to make much sense, it’s also quite a fun film to watch.

The (many) weaknesses of the plot are often compensated for by a cast that puts in performances that are far stronger than the film deserves. And it’s the cast that kept the film entertaining, even while we were joking about plot holes.

In the Name of the King is a film best watched in a group, and I watched it with the boys. Since I had started talking over the film, everyone else free to join in.

The most frequently repeated comment, not surprisingly, was:

But I don’t get why…

My favourite interjection, however was:

I want to be Jason Statham!

Which I think we can all agree is a totally suitable ambition for a nine year old.

People often talk about films being so bad they’re good, which is something I don’t really agree with. Bad films are bad films. But there are films that manage to sit right on the edge of being both terrible and hysterical and here is where you will find Uwe Boll.

Dark City

Here’s a thing: I was never overly impressed with The Matrix — and even less so with its sequels. While that film does contain some incredibly impressive action sequences, and the Wachowski’s bullet time effect was a genuine innovation, I always felt that the plot was both clunky and incoherent. Part of this is, of course, down to the fact that the plot is both clunky and incoherent but I think my reaction was also affected by the fact that by the time I saw The Matrix, I had already seen a couple of films that handled very similar ideas in a much, much better manner. One of those films was eXistenZ, the other was Dark City.

After an opening monologue which (I believe) is cut from later releases of this film, we are introduced to John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) who has just awoken, in a bath, with no memory.

As Murdoch stumbles around, he receives a phone call from Dr. Daniel Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland) telling him to leave now to escape “The Strangers”. During the course of the call, Murdoch discovers a dead woman in his room, and we’re off.

Dark city has a very noir feel to it, not least in the design of the stylishly anachronistic city in which the characters find themselves. Not least of these is Inspector Bumstead (William Hurt), who is leading the manhunt for Murdoch, a suspected serial killer. Murdoch himself is trying to stay ahead of the police as he looks for his identity, and tries to determine whether he really has committed the crimes of which he is suspected. His estranged wife (Jennifer Connelly) doesn’t know who or what to believe, and then there’s Dr. Schreber whose motivations are kept deliberately unclear.

This makes for an increasingly engrossing film that is both a mystery and a thriller, all built on top of a very smart science fiction premise that leaves us asking even more questions, about what exactly is it that The Strangers are up to and what is the significance of Shell Beach.

Oddly enough, having the premise handed to us up front makes it somewhat unclear as to where the film is going. Initially, at least, but once you get a handle on what is happening it really is gripping.

And disorienting.

Ultimately, Dark City is a meditation on what it means to be human and the extent to which our memories make us who we are. It’s a thoughtful, and thought-provoking, slice of science fiction that is capable of promoting much subsequent discussion.

Braindead

Before he became justifiably famous for The Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson made several wildly inventive horror comedies, the most wildly inventive of which was Braindead (also known as Dead Alive).

The film is set in Wellington in 1957 and centres on Lionel Cosgrove (Timothy Balme) whose overbearing mother, Vera (Elizabeth Moody) is bitten by a Sumatran Rat Monkey. She deteriorates quickly, and rather disgustingly falls apart — quite literally. Not long after she dies, and promptly returns.

If you’ve ever seen the sitcom Keeping Up Appearances, and can imagine Hyacinth Bucket as a zombie, you’re pretty much there.

And then things begin to get really silly.

Lionel, still the downtrodden son, tries to cope as best he can without letting on the truth of his mother’s condition. Inevitably enough, things quickly spiral completely out of control and we are treated to an escalating stream of utter insanity.

Braindead is pitched as a horror-comedy and, while it is undeniably gory, the film is much more a comedy than a horror film. It’s a slapstick comedy with plenty of blood and some cracking one-liners that still have me laughing out loud every time I watch it.

Versus

Japanese zombies are different. They’re faster, smarter and more vengeful than their western counterparts, and less interested in brains. They also have a habit of popping up at the 444th portal to the other side — the forest of resurrection.

In pre-credits times, a samurai battled zombies here but now it’s just another isolated forest at which escaped convicts meet up with over-acting gangsters who insist that everyone wait for an unnamed leader.

Tempers flare, guns are drawn, and the inevitable ensues.

Versus is all style and very little substance. But the style, consisting of one fight scene after another, is incredible. In any other film any one of these gun battles, knife fights, sword fights, and more would stand out; in Versus, we get two hours of highly stylised extreme violence.

Versus is 100% entertainment, casually throwing together a stack of action and zombie tropes into a plot that does little more than get us from one stunning set-piece to the next. It really is a testament to director Ryûhei Kitamura’s sense of pacing that it all holds together so well.

Versus is sometimes tense, often silly and always worth watching.

The Hidden

The Hidden is a surprisingly effective mix of thriller, science fiction and horror tropes starring Michael Nouri and Kyle MacLachlan. I generally try to avoid dropping spoilers when talking about films but, in this case, it’s going to be hard giving away more than I would normally like. Then again, the big reveal is so clearly telegraphed that it would be hard for anyone to miss it. So… you have been warned.

That said, it isn’t much of a spoiler to say Giant Space Slug! Because this happens pretty early in the film, shortly after a previously law-abiding citizen goes on a violently criminal rampage. Said citizen is finally halted and it’s while he’s in hospital that the Giant Space Slug makes his appearance.

Meanwhile, Detective Tom Beck (Michael Nouri) is assigned to the case and is rather annoyed to discover FBI Agent, Lloyd Gallagher (Kyle MacLachlan, right after Blue Velvet) has also attached himself to the investigation. Gallagher is cagey about what he knows and somewhat inconsistent with what he tells an increasingly frustrated Beck. This, combined with MacLachlan’s effectively otherworldly performance tells you everything you need to know, and much of the fun of the film comes from watching the escalating carnage while Beck catches up with the audience.

To be fair to Beck, he does have a lot of catching up to do.

The Hidden is a much better film than its premise suggests. There are no surprises along the way, but it is a solidly constructed film that remains internally consistent and is a lot of fun to watch.

And Kyle MacLachlan fights a Giant Space Slug. What more could you want?

Perdita Durango

Also known as Dance With the Devil, Perdita Durango was directed by Álex de la Iglesia and stars Rosie Perez and Javier Bardem. The film is based on a book (59° and Raining: The Story of Perdita Durango) by Barry Gifford. It’s a very strange film.

At heart, the film is a darkly humorous road trip, taken in the company of two people with absolutely no redeeming features. Perdita Durango (Perez) and Romeo Dolorosa (Bardem) meet each other on the Mexican border and embark on a cross-border rampage that embraces kidnap, murder and much, much else. There is also a MacGuffin about Dolorosa being hired to deliver a truck load of aborted foetuses to a Las Vegas cosmetics company, because if you are going to wallow in nihilism, then half-measures just don’t cut it.

Álex de la Iglesia is clearly setting out to push boundaries and the nature of the film puts it into very similar territory to Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers. What sets this film apart, though, is a self-conscious sense of irony throughout that ensures that the satirical point is never lost.

The film does have it’s lighter moments, most of which are provided by James Gandolfini’s appallingly accident-prone special agent Woody Dumas. Even here, though, the humour is so dark that you find yourself simultaneously cringing and laughing.

Ultimately, Perdita Durango is an amoral love story and a pitch black comedy about two people who have given up on society and whose casual malice challenges the conventions and tears away many of the illusions upon which we all rely.

The film ends much as you would expect but it is surprising just how much you come to care about them over the course of their journey.

Coffy

Back in my misspent youth, I watched — and accumulated — something of a stack of cinematic oddities. Exploitation films, cult films, independent films, and some stuff that I can’t begin to attempt to categorise. Since having kids, many of these have languished on high shelves because finding the time to watch them has become something of a challenge.

While putting together my recent Five Things post, however, it occurred to me that I do now have time to revisit some of these films. And what better place to start than Coffy?

Pam Grier plays the title character, a nurse whose younger sister is hospitalised by a heroin overdose. With the law apparently unable to take action, Coffy sets out to bring down the underworld. By herself.

And that’s pretty much all there is as far as the plot is concerned. That said, a simple plot well executed is better by far than a narrative that becomes bogged down in excessive complexity.

Coffy is an incredibly well executed film, and one that keeps you gripped for the entirety of its running time.

Jack Hill, who wrote and directed the film, launched his career with Roger Corman’s AIP studios and while he neither moved beyond the exploitation genres nor made a lot of films he was a demonstrably better filmmaker than many of his genre peers. This is most clearly apparent with with Coffy which he wrote with Pam Grier specifically in mind. He’d previously worked with Grier on both The Big Bird Cage and The Big Doll House but I doubt even Hill had realised what a superb performance she
would deliver as a shotgun-wielding vigilante determined to take down the whole of the underworld.

The film, of course, nods towards all of the genre cliches that you would expect but manages to rise above the average Blaxploitation film with some superbly outrageous fashion choices, spectacularly over the top action scenes and lashings of nudity and plenty of violence, some of which is surprisingly and disturbingly brutal.

What really makes the film stand out, though, is the fact that Hill is able to to reverse many of the stereotypes of the time by putting a female character at the centre of the film. Coffy is not just a nominal lead, either, but she is also both determined and proactive and not looking for help from anyone.

This, combined with a script that managed to also comment on race, corruption and the damage cause by drugs made Coffy a huge success, both financially and critically, and the film that established Pam Grier as a genre icon.

Arrival

Ted Chiang is something of a rarity. A writer who specialises in short stories and with a rate of output that is slow, to say the least. Yet every one of his stories is a perfect blend of fascinating science and memorable fiction.

It’s probably no surprise to anyone, therefore, that when I heard that a Hollywood adaptation of one of his stories was on the way, I was both thrilled and terrified. Mainly thrilled, though, so when I finally managed to see Arrival at the weekend my expectations were way too high. And it’s to the credit of all involved that the film managed to fully live up to those expectations.

When twelve alien spacecraft arrive on Earth, linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is recruited by the military to try to understand the alien language and, therefore, their intent. And then things get interesting.

It’s generally recognised that the language we use influences our perceptions, and you can find plenty of documentation outlining the many benefits of learning a second language. But what about an utterly alien language? And what if that alien language embodies a totally different perception of time to the one we are used to? How far can your perceptions be altered by learning another language?

Arrival is proper science-fiction, that takes an idea and thoroughly explores it. Layered on top of this is an overarching discussion about free will and personal responsibility.

This being a major film, there is plenty of dramatic tension, largely revolving around the perceived intentions of the aliens and the reactions of governments. None of this, though, distracts from the essential thoughtfulness of the film, which currently rates as the best film I’ve seen this year.