In an unavoidable change to our regularly scheduled episode, we are bringing you instead a bit of a retrospective of some of our favourite reviews from the first year of our podcast. If you’re relatively new to the podcast, we hope you find this informative, and if you’ve been with us from the start, firstly, thank you, and secondly we hope you enjoy this walk down memory lane, or feel free to instead contemplate something beautiful for an hour and a half.
We’re talking about Violent Cop, Eraserhead, Dr. Strangelove, Breathless, The Hunt for Red October, The Assassin, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, The Revenant, and The Swarm.
It’s Takeshi Kitano’s first outing as director that really consolidates his position as a star in our personal firmaments with Violent Cop, a film he also stars in and undertook a substantial re-write of. We describe what a pivotal role exposure at a (relatively) early age had in our appreciation of film techniques and narrative, but even without the nostalgia tinted glasses this remains an astonishing work that features most of the techniques and styles that will recur throughout his later films. Fixed cameras and shots of unusually long duration, particularly of situations normally shot much more kinetically makes for a much more intriguingly paced film, with the moments of violence built to such that there climax is shocking and satisfying. The narrative sees Kitano play Azuma, a cop who’s never far from using violence as his first solution to any problem, with perhaps the closest Western parallel we can think of being Dirty Harry, although it’s not really too close to that. Azuma’s circle of violence gets completed when he his police partner commits suicide after it comes out that he had been syphoning off seized drugs to a gang to sell, further complicated when said gang kidnaps Azuma’s sister. No one gets away from this clean, and it ploughs a much bleaker furrow than anything we’d seen to this point, to the point of giving us an ending that refuses to conform to anything like our expectations. It’s one of our favourite films, and we can’t recommend it enough.
David Lynch’s first feature, 1977’s Eraserhead, which in a great many ways sets the template for most of the discussion that will occur in his subsequent work. It’s a narratively sparse yet impenetrable work, as frequent collaborator Jack Nance plays a young man surprised to find he’s now a father to a bawling mutant son, living in an industrial hellscape and granted succour only by the infrequent musical performances of a girl living inside his radiator. Or something like that. For our money, it’s Lynch’s most ludicrous film, certainly in terms of the story it would purport to tell, and really holds little water at all in that regards. Undeniably, however, it does showcase Lynch’s amazing visual flair, shot in a harsh monochrome that lends itself to the oppressive gloom and surrealism of the rest of the film. It’s a shame that the central story is so out-there bananas that it’s so difficult to engage with. One hell of a calling card, and as a historical document for looking at Lynch’s career progression it is essential viewing, albeit a viewing we don’t particularly enjoy.
Stanley Kubrick’s Peter Sellars powered black comedy of Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, as the Cold War and impending nuclear armageddon is treated with a surprising amount of disrespect as a rogue U.S. Air Force General issues an order for his bomber wings to attack the U.S.S.R., which would trigger an all out nuclear war. Again returning to the absurdity of war, and how even those at the highest levels of power often are as bewildered and ineffectual as the rest of us, this is a hugely impactful, hilarious dark satire. If we’re being critical, the very up-front nature of the comedy may hurt repeat viewings, but that first run through is truly something to be savoured.
Breathless, or À bout de souffle, marks the first feature from the other leading light of the New Wave, Jean-Luc Godard, and would commonly be held up as the best the genre has to offer. Which is surprising, given that I’d argue that it’s objectively terrible in several areas, but that’s perhaps getting ahead of myself.
Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) earns himself a promotion from ‘petty thug’ to ‘public enemy’ when he murders a policeman, seemingly in order to avoid a speeding ticket, which brings into question his risk/reward calculations. He flees to Paris, hoping to lose himself amongst the crowds and reclaim some money that is owed to him to allow him to escape to Italy.
He becomes reacquainted with Patricia (Jean Seberg), an American student and would-be journalist, and Michel sets about seducing her, not just for the usual reasons but to gain another hiding place in Paris. However, his romantic options are rather limited by the police’s ever-closing net as their manhunt shuts down Michel’s options.
There’s a few problems for me in Breathless, and I suppose I’ll deal with the conventional ones first – chiefly that Michel, despite his insistence that he’s modelling himself on Humphrey Bogart, has all the magnetism of Humphrey Bogart’s toenail clippings, and this unlikeable, murderous, misogynistic tool is not someone I want to see leading a film. The model may perhaps be closer to Jimmy Cagney’s gangster roles, but Jean-Paul Belmondo ain’t no Jimmy Cagney.
If the main influence that has trickled down from Breathless is the freedom to experiment with how films are made, we should at least raise the counterpoint that for a lot of the time, those things were done that way for very good reasons. Things like, for example, using filmstock that’s actually available in usable quantities, such that you’re not stuck splicing 18m lengths of Ilford HPS photo stock together before shooting. Things like using some studio lights to augment the natural light, so you’re not having to push all the ISO400 stock a stop to 800. This unorthodox choice of filmstock severely limited the camera choice, leading to my greatest annoyance in the film.
The Eclair Cameflex was the only camera able to function with this frankenfilm, and not only did it not synchronise sound recording, it sounded like an elephant skeleton falling down a metal staircase inside an echo chamber, so near as damnit this entire film has been ADR’ed. A relatively common occurrence in these New Wave films, given the penchant for guerrilla, permit-less outdoor shootings, but here’s it’s done singularly ineptly. I try not to get hung up on technical flaws, but it’s such a glaring annoyance that I could not take any of the film seriously, as none of the voices sound remotely like they’re coming from the same room as the bodies, and what little Foley work is there is so badly mixed that it comes across as parody.
Likewise, Breathless may well be the start of the jump cut revolution, but it’s actual effect is something of a mixed bag. While it’s used in some car driving sequences in ways that are used so commonly today that it’s achingly contemporary, it’s also rather puzzlingly used to absolutely no effect in some dialogue scenes, which these days just gives it the feel of a badly produced YouTube vlog.
It’s not completely without merit – being the root of influence for these aspects of modern cinematic technique lend it some respect as a historical document, and there’s an undeniable energy and vibrancy to it, but overall, there’s just too much wrong with it to actually be a decent film. Important? I’d grant you that. Classic? Nope – too much of it is much too rubbish to be mentioned in the same league as your Citizen Kanes_or _Lawrences of Arabias. To be honest, I enjoyed it so little I can’t even recommend it on the historical level – read up on it if you like, but as a film, rather like most lower league fitba, it’s a dismal 90 minutes.
Often recalled as “that submarine movie with Connery in it”, Red October is actually an engrossing thriller that remains surprisingly effective and, perhaps, relevant given Vladimir Putin’s recent haranguing of the West. A startlingly young-looking Alec Baldwin is here seen in his pre-Alpha Male pupae stage as the “still slightly wet” incarnation of Jack Ryan, using his skill and judgement in character analysis to avert a potential war with Russia over their devastating new submarine and it’s Commander who may be rogue or, just maybe, defecting.
It’s perhaps surprising to see how well this movie holds up and, even more so, just how clearly Baldwin’s performance remains the strongest incarnation of Ryan some 25 years down the line. October is not without it’s flaws, but assured direction and powerful cinematography from John McTiernan and Jan De Bont (both fresh from 1988’s Die Hard) mean it stands the test of time and remains an thoroughly recommended watch.
Hsiao-Hsien Hou is a highly celebrated director whose works have been on my “to-watch” list for some time, however I think this is the first film of his I’ve actually caught up with. It’s being pushed as a redefinition of the wushu genre, ala Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or House of the Flying Daggers, which I don’t think is entirely the case, but at any rate I’m getting ahead of myself. Nie Yinniang (Qi Shu), taken from her parents as a child and raised to be a peerless assassin, however after suffering a sudden attack of morals and refusing to kill a target in front of his son, she’s sent back to the province of her birth with orders to kill the man she had been promised in marriage to and seemingly still harbours feeling for, and a man in charge of the largest military forces in seventh century China.
It looks stunningly gorgeous. If this isn’t the most attractively shot film of the year then we’d need to see something truly extraordinary. To a degree it calls back to the previously mentioned films, with strong, bold, vibrant use of colour and painterly framing, often sedately held for some time, with Hou somewhat anachronistically using the Academy ratio giving it a very distinctive look. Visually it’s an absolute treat. I’m a sucker for this period, and the detail is incredible. The pacing, while sedate, held my attention, and the brief flurries of action are satisfying, and it’s adroitly acted.
Rather less edifying, I had only the loosest grasp on what was going on, and who most of the characters were, or their relation to each other. From the recaps, this doesn’t seem to be a particularly complex story and I like to think I’m savvy enough to follow plots of this nature, so I’m left unsure if this was just an off day for me or if the story is obfuscated somehow.
Perhaps more a criticism of the coverage of the film rather than the film itself, but I’m also not exceedingly clear as to why you would champion this as a redefining work in the wushu genre, unless you’re happy with “redefining” meaning “leaving most of the genre out entirely”. That’s a perfectly valid way to focus on the characters, acting performances, and the detail of the period – but it then makes it a drama with occasional wushu elements, not a wushu film. It’d be like “redefining” the Fast & Furious franchise by removing cars from the next film and making it about dirigibles. And while I’m entirely on board with such an airship based outing, calling it a Fast & Furious film would be perverse.
For me at least, the positives well outweigh the negatives, and I can recommend it on the aesthetic level alone – and if you’re less of a dummy than I am you may even like the plot as well.
1965’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold stars Richard Burton in a blistering performance from as he plays out an elaborate game of double, triple, or possibly quadruple bluffs in a scheme to sow discord in the Russian Intelligence service. Its plots are a delight to see unfold, and is imbued with a real sense of cynicism that sets this apart, as it resolutely eschews any of the glamour of the likes of James Bond.
Frontiersman and trapper Lenny De Cap wins a fight with a bear in the wilderness of 1800’s Montana, but takes a mauling for his troubles. When adverse weather causes the group he was leading to abandon him, at the same time killing his son who understandably protests this behaviour, he vows to recover and take vengeance on those responsible. It might be the favourite to sweep the Oscars, but it’s not even our favourite film in the podcast. Not that there’s that much objectively wrong with it, except the length, but the “snowy wilderness” look quickly goes from pretty to pretty monotonous, and for all the nominations all Di Caprio’s doing for much of the film is moan and drag himself along the ground. Well done for bearing the physical discomfort on a troubled, difficult production, but “Arrrgh” isn’t the sort of monologue that typically wins people plaudits. Maybe we’re missing something, but there’s not much of interest in this film for us.
Ah, The Swarm. It is the best of films, it is the worst of films. Mainly it’s the worst of films. The Swarm perhaps better than any other film represents the wheels coming off the genre and it largely falling off the map for a few decades. We’ve been through fire, earth, water, and the likes of Airport takes care of the fourth element. The only element left to exploit for disaster, then, is obviously bees, an unlikely choice for the fifth element.
Michael Caine steps up to combat the menace of African Killer Bees largely through the medium of shouting as top entomologist Brad Crane, who in a way that is in no way whatsoever believable happens across a missile silo that’s just been ravaged by the killer bees, with one of the few escaping the carnage being the site’s doctor, Katharine Ross’ Captain Helena Anderson. Soon Richard Widmark shows up as General Slater, tasked with investigating what happened at the base and, once the top brass have accepted the reality of our bee based bother, told to help Crane in any way possible.
Despite this, Widmark doesn’t trust Crane and orders his subordinates to keep tabs on him. I take this to mean that Widmark suspects Crane is in league with the bees, or possibly is a bee in disguise, because frankly that’s the level that we’re working on in this film. And so it goes, with Crane and his assembled scientists trying to come up with ways to kill the bees without destroying everything around it, while the bees for some reason slowly buzz towards Houston killing everything in their way, because this film seems to have no idea what a bee is, or what they do.
Despite Crane’s impassioned pleas at one point not to ascribe human motives to this force of nature, it’s clear that the only explanation for the every action that the bees take once they leave the outskirts of the small town where they’d hived up is that it was written by humans in a ham-fisted way to up the stakes, including causing an off-camera nuclear meltdown at a power plant. Despite a reasonable budget, it’s production values are of no value at all, and its special effects are in no way special, perhaps topping out with the hallucinations of giant bees that their stings apparently cause, which I’m sure is 100% scientifically accurate. So, no meltdowns for you, nor when the order is given to burn Houston towards the end of the film are you getting any more than six boys running around in bee-keeper outfits with flamethrowers. Sure. That’ll work. Small town, Houston.
Caine is, I suppose, treating the material with the contempt it deserves, although it’s a low point in the man’s career, and the career of cinema in general. We’ve said the dialogue is horrible for a number of these films, but in The Swarm it transcends into being downright laughable. While this film is, on absolutely every level, hot garbage of the lowest order, everyone really should see this film at least once, even if you’re not the sort of person who normally subscribes to the ironic watching of bad films. It’s tough to describe quite how inept this film is, and so on that level it’s essential, terrible viewing.
Special anti-thanks to whatever clown decided the home releases should be two and a half hours long, rather than the cinematic cut of 116 minutes, itself at least 115 minutes too long.
Thanks to everyone who has got in touch with us on this, or said kind words about the show – it’s all very much appreciated.
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