Lesbian spies, British gangsters, Firewood campers, and Cynthia Rothrock.
I don’t watch enough films. For a wannabe film critic and film writer, I sure as hell do not watch enough films outside of my weekly trip to the cinema. On average, I should at least be doing one a day, but usually I’m too busy with university and, semi-ironically, writing about films to find the time to sit and watch a film. Not to mention the fact that I don’t like to just throw on a movie in the background whilst I do other stuff, I like to give a movie my full attention, to get lost in its world and to be focussed on the film at all times. If I open my phone to check Twitter or do something else whilst the film is running, that means that a film has lost me, which is the worst thing it can do.
I resolved, therefore, to spend my Summer doing almost nothing except watch films. To fill in those important blanks in my film knowledge and to do a better job of this whole “film critic” business by watching more films more frequently. That hasn’t worked out because, as mentioned in my piece on how Inside Out truly affected me, my mum moved house and my new bedroom is really not conducive to watching movies. It’s about one and a half full paces from the door to the wall, for a start, meaning that there is no room in here for a chair. I have to watch films whilst in bed, with the TV affixed to the wall, since there’s nowhere else to put it, at such a height that I always have to crane my neck in some painful direction to watch it. Plus the fact that one gets sleepy if they lay down on a bed for too long, even if one is not sleepy to begin with, as I found out whilst trying to watch The Three Caballeros one night.
The bedroom itself is right next to the main road, which has a bus stop and a pub there too, so I’ll frequently have my film drowned out by squealing tires from people seemingly drag racing their cars or bikes, or the dreadful cover band that practices at the pub next door seemingly every other night. Shutting the windows doesn’t do any good, cos the sound from the world outside leaks through far too easily, and the room gets unbearably hot with them shut for some reason. And, even if all of these factors were moot, there’s still the fact that mother insists on telling me everything she’s doing by shouting it from downstairs instead of coming to my door and telling me, with her getting more agitated the longer she shouts for, leading to my getting paranoid any time things get loud and worrying that she’s shouting me for whatever reason.
I abandoned my planned Summer of Cinema very quickly, as you can imagine. Partially cos it was near-impossible to watch anything, and partially cos I was too busy wallowing in my own self-pitying misery to watch anything. Fortunately, I’m back at uni in something close to 7 weeks, so hopefully then I can just transfer what I had planned to do now over to then, since I’m actually able to get stuff in done in my apartment. Autumn of Cinema and Winter of Cinema admittedly don’t have quite the same ring to it, though.
Here’s what I’ve been watching this week.
D.E.B.S. [Monday 27th July]
Dir: Angela Robinson
First time viewing
D.E.B.S. is a complete and absolute mess of a movie. In fact, it’s three separate movies, all aimed at completely different audiences, all playing at the exact same time, and all fighting for the same reel space. One’s a knowingly cheesy and low-budget Charlies Angels spoof, one’s yet another High School movie, and another one is a surprisingly sweet romance about sexual awakening and discovering your sexuality. All three only very occasionally fit together somewhat cleanly, the tone is all over the place, the excess cheese and blatantly low-quality production values clash with the earnest sincerity of the lesbian romance, its metaphor for homosexuality is almost insultingly obvious…
But, man, do I ever love this movie! Like, it’s honestly a bad film, but I love it on both “So Bad, It’s Good” and completely non-ironic levels. The romance between Amy and Lucy is unexpectedly sweet, there are many jokes that genuinely land, and it’s completely bonkers – a film willing to throw away everything at any time if it thinks the idea it currently has is good enough. That ramshackle barely-held-together nature is charming, and its heart is in the right place. Plus, there’s also Devon Aoki doing the single most hilariously awful French accent that I have ever heard in my entire life, and the soundtrack is quite literally every single band or song that I was listening to in 2004 one after the other.
Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp [Friday 31st July]
First time viewing
Yes, this is technically a TV show, but I’m including it here for three reasons. 1) I really didn’t watch much this week and need to boost the numbers. 2) It’s Wet Hot American Summer and like hell am I going to avoid any opportunity to talk about Wet Hot American Summer. And 3) Despite ostensibly being a TV series of eight 30-minute episodes, it’s really just a four-hour movie that builds to a series of cliffhanger breaks every 30 minutes. It’s paced like a show that needs to be consumed like a movie, such is the density of the jokes, call-backs, call-forwards, and arguably plotting. If you took the original Wet Hot American Summer film and stretched it out to about four hours, then you get First Day of Camp. More than any other Netflix show I’ve seen so far, this is one that demands binging.
More importantly, it absolutely deserves binging. First Day of Camp is a show that hits the ground running and honestly doesn’t let up until the credits roll one last time. This is a show that is absolutely relentless in terms of jokes, character work, and situations, constantly piling them one on top of the other and praying to God that the result doesn’t collapse in a heap. Yet it never does thanks to deft handling and pacing, ensuring that everybody gets their fair due and that every overly long gag is followed up with ten lightning-fast zingers for variation. Not every plot hits its mark – Coop’s love triangle wears out its one joke and message fast, eventually coming close to giving off the impression that Michael Showalter and David Wain just wanted as many opportunities to awkwardly make out with Lake Bell as possible – but most do, and it all comes together in one of the funniest and most surprisingly moving finales I’ve seen in ages. It more than lives up to the modern classic movie and, whisper it, may even be better in many ways.
Also, it’s given us “Heart Attack Love”, which is officially my new go-to karaoke choice, and these 17 seconds of pure comedy gold that justify all of 2015 by themselves. (MILD SPOILERS)
Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation [Saturday 1st August]
Dir: Christopher McQuarrie
First time viewing
So, I just don’t get the Mission: Impossible series. I really don’t get why, too. On paper, they’re a whole load of things that I love – writing characters into impossibly tight spots, big action sequences that mostly run on practical effects, spy stuff, gambits galore – but in practice all I do is sit there and go “these are well-constructed action films” instead of being wowed and thrilled. I mean, they’re assembled with glee and enjoyment, a collective desire from everybody to have as much fun as possible and go giant and crazy, but I never feel drawn into them. They’re the live-action equivalent of the How to Train Your Dragon series for me.
Something I would like to comment on, mind, comes from an observation made in a review of this film by the brother of an internet friend of mine. In it, he wonders why nearly every recent spy movie involves the lead character going rogue from their intelligence agency in order to hunt the bad guys. He makes a good point and I have a theory as to why. In this, the 21st Century, we are all starting to get rightly suspicious about big government agencies having access to our personal information and data at all times. The idea of them having that access without our active consent scares us, and so we rightly resent it which often leads to us painting organisations like this as evil. Hence, in order to appear less right-wing, stories will have one or a few operatives go rogue to take down the system from within, because who doesn’t want to root for the Man-destroying underdog?
However, this often ends up making the resultant story even more right-wing than intended. Often the story isn’t willing to examine the actions that the rogue lead character is willing to take in order to bring down these corrupt institutions, working in the absolutes that everything they do is right and correct and just. Governments can’t be trusted, but one man who knows best and is willing to cross the line to get results can be. Spooks: The Greater Good had this problem, when it refused to paint Harry as a villain even when he’s allowing terrorist attacks to go off without a hitch in order to get at The Real Villains or poisoning them instead of bringing them to trial. Rogue Nation also falls into this pothole by not playing Ethan’s slow breakdown over hunting The Syndicate as anything other than “but he really, really cares!”
Governments and intelligence committees can’t be trusted, but one man operating with no oversight on what he believes are the best interests of everyone can. That’s right-wing politics disguised as left-wing politics, and it works more often than not. I may be talking out of my arse, but those are my two cents in any case.
Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels [Tuesday 4th]
Dir: Guy Ritchie
Re-watching Lock, Stock for the first time in years has made a few things obvious to me. The first is that this is clearly the effort of a first-time writer-director. It’s kind of a mess, with too many characters and plot strands and it all doesn’t come together anywhere near as neatly as it thinks it does, and there are many stretches of dialogue that are ridiculously over-written, but it’s all held together more than competently by sheer energy and enthusiasm, a creative voice who is really incredibly happy that he’s getting the chance to make movies.
The second thing is that it is incredibly obvious as to why I latched onto this as a kid. Multiple interconnecting plotlines, a specific dialogue rhythm that I wasn’t used to in other films or shows, that soundtrack, this really obvious sense of style. This DVD, along with Kill Bill, Shaun of the Dead, and arguably The Matrix series, was my first entry into the world of media made explicitly for adults and it’s pretty self-explanatory how that captured my 10 year-old mind so. And the third thing is just how out-of-the-box ready for stardom Jason Statham is in this. Like, Bacon is his first role, and it’s relatively minor, yet he’s already exuding this natural charisma that lets you know that he’s destined for big things. That’s impressive.
Lady Dragon [Wednesday 5th]
Dir: David Worth
First time viewing
This one is weird. Cynthia Rothrock plays an ex-CIA agent who is currently living in Indonesia as she is tracking Richard Norton, the man who killed her husband. Now, for the first 25 minutes, things go as that premise sounds: Rothrock kicks a bunch of ass, backstory over a drink of alcohol, confrontation with Norton. But then, Rothrock is caught, raped and beaten (both off-screen) by Norton, and dumped off at the side of the road (because it’s apparently not an early-to-mid 90s American B-movie without a rape scene). Whereupon she is found by a young Indonesian boy and his mute Grandfather, taken in to their quiet village, nursed back to health, and trained back into fighting shape.
That doesn’t sound so weird on paper, but in practice it is ridiculously jarring. Not only are the entire first 25 minutes rendered rather pointless, but the tone of the film switches completely as well, from a cynical 90s American B-movie to an earnest Asian Martial Arts movie. It genuinely feels like somebody switched the tapes out for a completely different movie, one that occasionally has the original film intruding on the new film for no apparent reason. Then, 25 minutes after that, Rothrock heads back to civilisation and the film tries to marry both genres as painlessly as possible.
The result is a weird film that spends much of its runtime spinning its wheels and awkwardly hopping between its various parts, treating them with the same care an overzealous five year-old treats their first cat. The fights are pretty great, Rothrock is her usual charming self, and Norton flits between the three separate types of villain the film expects him to play – including one utterly bizarre scene where he transforms into a Bond villain – with some panache, but the film as a whole never quite works. It’s like nobody proof-read any part of the thing before going to shooting.
China O’Brien [Thursday 6th]
Dir: Robert Clouse
First time viewing
What is it with American Martial Arts films and needlessly complex plotting? Look at Hong Kong or Asian Martial Arts films like Yes, Madam or The 36 Chambers of Shaolin – those films own their Martial Arts intentions. They don’t pretend to be anything else, and don’t try and tell bog standard C-movie action stories whilst throwing in half-arsed martial arts sequences to break up the monotony (based on the admittedly limited sampling I’ve currently had). China O’Brien, despite billing itself as a Martial Arts movie, is a film about a corrupt backwoods town that very occasionally has things break out into really crap fights for no adequate reason.
It’s almost like it’s embarrassed to be a Martial Arts film, going for long stretches that are basically the plot of Hot Fuzz played straight and then straining for a sequence in which Cynthia Rothrock solves everything by kicking it in the motherf*cking face. This is probably the worst of the Rothrock movies that I have so far seen – and I’m including the legendarily terrible and wrongheaded Undefeatable in that, cos that at least has fun fight scenes and the cheese factor – because it’s just so pointless. It leans too heavily on Rothrock’s acting ability to carry it through these long stretches of nothing much at all happening and… Look, I like Rothrock, but she’s not really an actress. She has charisma, which you could argue is more important, but she doesn’t really have acting talent, so if you ask her to carry pointless crap, you can’t be surprised when it all falls apart. There’s just no reason for this one to exist, basically.
Callie Petch feels it coming like a tidal wave.