Earlier this week The Fringes’ Peter Munford made a flying visit to the London Film Festival and saw four films. Here are his thoughts on what he saw.
ELECTRIC BOOGALOO: THE WILD UNTOLD STORY OF CANNON FILMS
Dir: Mark Hartley. Australia. 2014.
Mark Hartley has carved out a nice little niche for himself creating fun, frothy documentaries about some of the less reputable corners of the film industry. In 2008 his film Not Quite Hollywood documented the golden years of Ozploitation, and in 2010 he took a look at Filipino action cinema with Machete Maidens Unleashed. After taking a detour into fiction filmmaking with his remake of Patrick, (more on that in Adam’s review HERE) he has returned to the documentary format with an account of the Cannon Group. Formed in 1967, Cannon went through most of the 1970s turning out extremely low budget exploitation cinema, before being bought by Israeli cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus in 1979.
Electric Boogaloo details how, under Golan and Globus, Cannon became expert at pre-selling films around the world in order to fund their creation, and how this enabled them to turn out a huge amount of product. In the process they, made a star of Chuck Norris with films like Missing In Action and Delta Force, and supplied Charles Bronson with a seemingly never-ending number of street punks to gun down in the Death Wish sequels. Cannon also sought to make their mark in the highbrow end of the market, by funding films by directors including Cassavetes, Zeffirelli and Godard.
If you have seen either of Hartley’s earlier documentaries then you will know what to expect from Electric Boogaloo. Talking heads are interspersed with news footage and clips from the films. When choosing clips Hartley usually picks out the really staggering moments from the films being discussed (I particularly enjoyed Lou Ferrigno as Hercules punching a bear into outer space) and despite knowing that these brief funny or mind-boggling moments are probably surrounded by 90 minutes of utter boredom you can’t help but create a mental list of films to track down and see as the documentary goes on.
Hartley was unable to persuade Golan or Globus to be interviewed, (nor Chuck Norris, sadly) but this is more than compensated by the huge number of people from both in front of camera and behind the scenes who are willing to discuss their time as part of the Cannon machine. Highlights include Dolph Lundgren turning up briefly to admit that he “felt a little bit silly” playing the role of He-Man, Franco Nero’s exasperation at the voice that was chosen for him when his role was dubbed in Enter The Ninja and a nice little sequence where Hartley cuts between various interviewees all telling the same story, of when the orang-utan that played Clyde alongside Clint Eastwood in Every Which Way But Loose came to the Cannon offices for a meeting with Menahem Golan.
The film is not afraid to portray some of the more negative aspects of Golan or Globus and their business practices, yet somehow, by its close I could not help feeling affection for the two immigrants who for a time, succeeded at taking Hollywood on at its own game. As Golan points out in an archive clip included in the film, Hollywood is a lot of the time made up of nothing but talk whilst he was interested less in talk and more in doing. And whilst the quality of what Cannon did may be questionable a lot of the time, it cannot be denied that they certainly did a lot of it.
I’ll happily watch Electric Boogaloo again when it receives a regular release. Perhaps on a double bill with a Chuck Norris classic. And I definitely need to find a copy of Lou Ferrigno in Hercules. He punches a bear into space for Christ’s sakes!
HARD TO BE A GOD
Dir: Aleksei German. Russia. 2013
Hard To Be A God takes place on a planet that is similar to Earth, but that has only reached the equivalent of the Middle Ages. Amongst the filth and squalor of this world, a group of incognito visitors from Earth observe life on the planet whilst forbidden to intercede in its affairs. When a purge of those with the ability to read and write is begun by the powerful Don Reba, one of these visitors, Don Rumata, feels he has no choice but to act.
Or at least that’s what I think the film is about, based on the short voiceover which opens the film as well as vague memories of reading the original novel by the Strugatsky Brothers (whose works also formed the basis of Tarkovsky’s Solaris and Stalker) some time ago and a quick scan of the film’s wikipedia entry. I think I would have been hard pressed to guess what was going on if I had gone into the film completely cold. German has little interest in exposition. Instead, he deposits the audience within this world and leaves them to play catch up throughout the film’s three hour running time, as Don Rumata travels through this world of mud, rain and bodily substances.
I’m sure that makes it sound like it could be a frustrating watch for a viewer but I did not find it so. German held my attention throughout, purely through the world he has put on screen. It is truly astounding to behold, a mass of run-down wooden and stone structures surrounded by mud (so much mud!) and populated by some of the most astonishing looking extras you ever will see. German films it all in beautiful black and white with a constantly roving camera. Leonid Yarmolnik as Rumata is often shot in close ups that seem that little bit tighter than conventional film grammar has conditioned us to feel comfortable with, and objects like hands or swords will appear in the extreme foreground, obscuring what we think we are supposed to be looking at, before moving deeper into the scene to reveal the human they are attached to. German also rejects the convention of the fourth wall. Throughout the film characters look right down the camera, and on one or two occasions even push it out of their way. It all adds up to a dizzying, thrilling cinematic experience that I will not forget in a hurry.
Sventlana Karmalita, German’s co-screenwriter (and wife) was present at the London Film Festival screening, and in her introduction told of the amazing journey the film took to the screen. Filming began in 2000 and continued until 2006. German then set about a lengthy post-production process which was on the verge of completion in early 2013 when he suffered a fatal heart failure. Karmalita and German’s son Alexsei German Jr (also a film director) then stepped in and, utilising the director’s extensive notes, were able to complete the film to resemble his vision. Her justifiable feelings of pride both towards her husband and his film, were abundantly obvious, even as she spoke through a translator.
Hard To Be A God is by no means an easy watch and its narrative obtuseness will no doubt put many off. But those who stick with it will find it a filmgoing experience unlike almost any other. I am certain I will be having flashbacks of moments from the film for a long time to come. Here’s hoping some enterprising UK distributor picks it up so it can reach the audience it deserves.
Dir: Sion Sono. Japan. 2014
Sion Sono is a director whose work I have been following for quite a few years, and in September I had the pleasure of screening his 2008 4 hour epic Love Exposure, one of my favourite Japanese films of recent years, as part of Satori Screen. Consequently, I was keen to see his latest effort, a hip hop musical adaptation of Santa Inoue’s manga series, whilst at the festival.
In an unspecified future, the districts of Tokyo are each ruled by various gangs of violent, disaffected youth. Mera, leader of the vicious Wu-Ronz tribe decides to go to war with the peace-loving Musashino Saru gang and over the course of a single night the various other tribes are drawn into a conflict taking in martial arts, tanks roaming the streets of Tokyo, devil worship, cannibalism and much, much more. If that wasn’t wild enough, the vast majority of the film’s dialogue is delivered in rap as characters spit verses back and forth at each other.
It is apparent from the outset of the film that Sono has been awarded one of his largest budgets to date, as the film opens with a hugely complicated shot featuring Shota Sometani (also seen in Sono’s Himizu) rapping directly down the camera, as it weaves in and out of the neon lit streets, introducing us to the violent yet vibrant reality of the world we will be spending the next two hours in.
The film features a huge cast of characters, and it would be easy for the audience to lose track of who belongs to what tribe but through use of distinctive wardrobe design and canny casting this is rarely a problem. The most memorable performance in the film is delivered by v-cinema legend Riki Takeuchi (from films like Miike’s Dead or Alive and Fudoh: The Next Generation) who plays Meru’s father, a sadistic cannibal crime lord. Takeuchi goes so over the top here with the literal eye rolling villainy it is almost beyond words. I’m not sure I can call it a good performance but it is certainly a memorable one.
I’m no rap expert but the primarily electronic beats driven soundtrack fits the neon lit night time milieu of the film. Judging the rapping ability of the film’s performers is no easy thing when they are delivering their rhymes in a language you do not speak so I’ll refrain from passing judgement there. However, credit should definitely go to whoever was responsible for the creation of the film’s English subtitles. For the most part they flow really well, without too many strange phrasings or sentence structures required to maintain the rhyming nature of rap.
Less successful however, is the film’s treatment of its female characters. The vast majority of them are given very little to do other than provide scantily clad set dressing. Nana Seino, in the lead female role, is the only one to receive a secondary character trait (which I guess you would call “good at kicking ass”) and even she is required to partake in some barely plot-justified nudity. Sono has been responsible for some great and hugely complex female characters in the past (Hikari Mitsushima’s character of Yoko in the aforementioned Love Exposure, for example) so to see the female roles being so reductive in Tokyo Tribe does feel like a little bit of a backwards step.
If you are prepared to look past that though Tokyo Tribe offers a lot of fun. The plot zips by at quite a pace, and there is always some new and probably depraved surprise around the corner. The final reveal of the real reason Meru hates Kai, the leader of the Musashino Saru, being a particular highlight. Eureka Entertainment have already picked the film for a first quarter of 2015 UK release and all being well I will be able to screen the film at a Satori Screen event. I’m certain quite a few of the regular attendees will get a kick of it.
THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY
Dir: Peter Strickland. UK. 2014.
A young woman, Evelyn, arrives at the country home of Cynthia, a lecturer on entomology, to work around the house. As Evelyn gets to work Cynthia treats her in an extremely cold and aloof manner, dishing out jobs with a seeming sadistic relish and taking pleasure in delivering punishments when Evelyn does not live up to her impossibly high standards.
That is a short description of the opening sequence of The Duke Of Burgundy, and I am loathe to describe the film’s plot any further beyond this. Shortly following this sequence, some information on these two women is revealed and the film doubles back to show the opening events from Cynthia’s perspective. I found this small twist so delightful I would not want to ruin it for anyone else watching the film, except to say that it is the balance of power between these two women that remains the film’s main concern throughout.
I was greatly impressed by Peter Strickland’s debut feature film Katalin Varga and, whilst not loving it as much as some, found much to enjoy in his second, Berbarian Sound Studio. With his third, The Duke Of Burgundy, he has announced himself as deserving a place at the very top table of British directors. Along with his collaborators, Strickland has crafted a beautifully designed, shot and acted piece of cinema, utterly believable yet simultaneously enigmatic. Many elements of the film invite audience questioning, why are there no men in this world? Where and when are the events taking place? Yet, these questions do not distract from the core plot and the focus upon the relationship between the two leads.
The film is also surprisingly funny, with laughs arising naturally from the characters and their all too believable responses to each other. Whilst The Duke Of Burgundy is a little too out there to be a mainstream hit, I would be very surprised if it does not register as a cult success. Lecturers of undergraduate film studies degrees: prepare to have your pile of Tarantino and Blade Runner essays diluted with an occasional Peter Strickland one from now on.
Having seen The Duke Of Burgundy once, I cannot wait to see it again. Meaning that strangely, a film I’ve already seen is now one of my most anticipated films of 2015.
No trailer for the film has been posted online as of yet. However, Film4 have placed a short clip on youtube. Watch it if you must, but this truly is a film that needs to be seen on the big screen and with as little foreknowledge as possible.
Peter Munford is the programmer of Satori Screen, QUAD’s monthly Asian cult film night. When not watching films or reading about films you can probably find him staring off into space, thinking about films.