Category Archives: Films that you probably haven’t seen and definitely shouldn’t

Films that you probably haven’t seen and definitely shouldn’t #5: Viva Maria! (1965, dir. Louis Malle)

I really like Jeanne Moreau. What’s not to really like? The heavy-lidded insouciance of her gaze. The husky purr of her voice, undoubtedly nurtured by a several-packs-of-Gitanes-a-day habit. The attitude that challenges you to find her irresistible while simultaneously not giving a Gallic toss whether you do or not. I present Jacques Demy’s La Baie des Anges as case for the defence. Just see if I’m not right.

Louis Malle didn’t exactly discover Moreau but he certainly gave her an almighty shove up the career ladder. In his first two fiction features, the Malle-Moreau chemistry worked wonders for both parties, on-screen and off. In Ascenseur pour l’échafaud Moreau wanders the Parisian boulevards throughout the night while her lover is trapped in a lift. In Les Amants she wanders in the wee small hours through the woods in her nightgown before taking a bath with the lover she’s just picked up. Nobody takes a nocturnal stroll quite like Jeanne Moreau.

Jeanne Moreau shades it

After making the downbeat Le feu follet (also featuring Moreau in a minor role, and recently re-invented in Norway as Oslo, August 31st), Malle decided it would be welcome change of tone to make a comedy. This might have been a fine plan, except Louis Malle had no talent for comedy. His previous attempt, Zazie dans le Métro, though formally clever and inventive, seems to last twice as long as its 90 minutes in its desperate quest for wackiness. Viva Maria! also proves to be something of a challenge for an audience in search of a laugh.

The set-up is promising: Brigitte Bardot and Jeanne Moreau as a pair of travelling performers discovering striptease by fluke, in what’s probably the first female buddy movie. Their musical numbers together are the most enjoyable aspect of the film. The scene where Bardot accidentally bursts out of her costume during a song, then continues to strip to the inevitable excitement of the audience, has a certain charm, although Barbara Windsor will forever remain the Queen of Accidentally Bursting Out Of Her Costume. And a few years later Catherine Deneuve and Françoise Dorléac occupied the stage with much more pizazz in Les Demoiselles de Rochefort.

It’s an uncertainty of tone that holes the film beneath the waterline. It veers across genre and style like some mishmash of Carry On, Monty Python, Luis Bunuel, The Wild Bunch, The Charge of the Light Brigade, Jesus Christ Superstar and Calamity Jane. The plot (if we can be bothered with it – certainly the screenwriters didn’t appear overly concerned) involves two performers both called Maria travelling around Central America with a circus at the start of the 20th century. They witness the sufferings of the peasants under the sadistic dictator Rodriguez, and after Maria I (Moreau) falls in love with the doomed revolutionary leader Flores (George Hamilton), the girls lead a popular revolt to victory over the dictatorship and the corrupt Catholic Church.

One minute we have the two Marias performing a fluffy song-and-dance routine, the next we have a brutal massacre and enslavement of peasants. Then there’s George Hamilton making his entrance like Christ on the road to Calvary, forced by his captors to carry a beam of wood across his shoulders, while giving Bardot a run for her money in the unfeasibly well-coiffed hair stakes. The Hamilton role is completely absurd but presented earnestly and without a whiff of humour. He speaks po-facedly of the degradation of the peasants and the necessity of revolution as if he had just read ‘Marxism for Dummies’, and with all the conviction of someone who knows he is being out-acted by his French voiceover artist. The scene in which he makes sweet love to Moreau in his jail cell, all the while chained to that inconvenient cross, is beyond parody, yet the plaintive guitar and lush string accompaniment indicate that we are meant to take it at its romantic face value.

George, putting the "ham" in Hamiltion

When Hamilton flutters his pretty lashes for the last time, Moreau, fired by her promise to continue the revolution, makes a speech based on Mark Antony in Julius Caesar that rouses the assembled peasants to rise against their oppressors. The speech is designed to awake indignation in the audience too, but since it is sandwiched between scenes of unfunny farce, all it awakens is an awareness that this film has been going for an hour and a quarter (only half an hour to go).

And so it continues. Relatively straight shoot-out action sequences and scenes of would-be dramatic impact are undermined by bizarre moments of surrealism (as they cross a barren desert, they encounter the upright skeletal remains of a horse and its rider) and weak humour (the cross on a church spire being used as a semaphore signal). The final sequences unexpectedly rope in a Spanish Inquisition that is straight out of Monty Python, and unveil the military genius of Brigitte Bardot. Ah yes, Bardot plays the innocent, virginal daughter of an Irish revolutionary, easily mistaken for a boy despite her proficiency with false eyelashes, who, after a night with the lads that would make a Premier League footballer blush, becomes the type of revolutionary strategist that chalks her conquests on the wall of her caravan. And who goes into a bit of a sulk when Moreau nabs Hamilton first.

Of course it’s all nonsense and not to be taken too seriously. The problem is that Malle does take it seriously for curiously long periods, resulting in a film with a tone as uneven as Bardot’s impersonation of an Irish boy. It looks good and the large budget is reflected in the crowds of peasants swarming across Mexican hills, but it’s an incoherent mess and rebelliously unfunny. So, a film that you probably haven’t seen and definitely shouldn’t? Well, yes. But, you know, it does have Jeanne Moreau in it…

Contributor Fintan McDonagh can be followed on Twitter @Fintalloneword.

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Films that you probably haven’t seen and definitely shouldn’t #4: Double X: The Name of the Game (1992, dir. Shani S Grewal)

As anybody with a cursory knowledge of cinema knows, there are many different types of ‘bad’ film. There are noble failures, big-budget studio stinkers, comedies that aren’t funny, thrillers that aren’t thrilling, and films so smug and wide of the mark that they make you want to pick up the nearest blunt instrument and embark on a merciless killing rampage. Every once in a while, however, there comes a film so fundamentally awful, so brain-scramblingly inept in every department that you really need to ensure you’ve watched with it at least one other person to prove you haven’t gone insane and simply made it all up. Double X: The Name of the Game, starring cuddly (and sadly late) comedian Norman Wisdom (yep Granddad, that’s NORMAN WISDOM) as a leathery career criminal, is such a film. From the unwieldy title, through the 95-odd minutes of its running time, to the lonely process of taking stock of what you’ve witnessed, it takes some believing. And boy, does it take some watching.

In Double X, Wisdom portrays Arthur Clutten, an elderly safecracker in a ruthless crime syndicate presided over by slick businessman/gangster Edward Ross (Simon Ward). Clutten decides to quit the game when he sees vicious enforcer Ignatius ‘Iggy’ Smith (Bernard Hill) dispensing with one unlucky victim in too gratuitous a fashion. As a negotiating tool for his long-term safety, Clutten purloins crucial documents from the gang’s HQ that, if exposed, would incriminate Ross. Clutten’s plan goes awry when the gang kidnap his daughter (Chloe Annett) and offer her in return for the documents. Confusing, if not completely scuppering what sounds like a relatively straightforward noir-inflected plot is the presence of a totally ridiculous character: a retired Chicago cop Michael Cooper (William Katt) shored up in the Scottish Highlands who, unfortunately, happens to be the lead.

Double X: The Name of the Game gets off to a terrible start, and never recovers. The credit sequence, with its Pino Palladino-lite bendy bass score and electric blue porn-style typography puts you in mind of Babestation, and is followed by one of the longest, most inane voiceovers (a classic telltale sign of lazy storytelling) of all-time, delivered by a half-asleep Katt. Cooper and Clutten strike up a tentative friendship, and Cooper is all set to be the leading man, our navigatory anti-hero. However, one rude edit later, he completely disappears and we are plunged into a flashback that takes up almost two-thirds of the film. In any film with its head on the right way round, Clutten would have been no more than a supporting character, but for whatever reason (the editor went on holiday, the editor went missing, Norman Wisdom edited the film himself, there was no editor), he takes centre stage. So when, after what seems like an eternity, Clutten is violently dispatched, you wonder if that’s really it for him because so much time has been invested in his story. Well, it is, and believe me, no matter how well prepared you think you are, you will be shocked when Norman Pitkin gets a cap popped in the back of his head. Following Clutten’s demise, Cooper becomes the main man, far too late in the day for anyone to care, and writer-director Grewal crowbars in enough plot in the last half-hour to fill up three (bad) films. Alas, the ridiculousness doesn’t end there.  Underpinning proceedings is an entirely fictionalized gang war between the North and West of London v. the South and East. Remember those heady clashes between Croydon and Cockfosters that encapsulated the dark days of Major’s Britain? No, neither do I.

The acting is mostly somnambulant. Katt’s desultory turn (he constantly appears to be looking just past the camera for an exit) makes you wonder how many actors turned down the part before he landed it. His wooden-ness, flowing blond locks and propensity for hanging around in areas of natural beauty immediately put me in mind of Ryan O’Neal’s legendarily poor showing in Norman Mailer’s Tough Guys Don’t Dance (see here for the worst line reading of all time), and he seems to visibly lose interest in the film as time progresses. Bernard “Yosser Hughes” Hill’s outrageous performance as ‘Iggy’ is perhaps the film’s worst. Free of his trademark moustache, Hill appears to be suffering from some kind of micro-Samson syndrome, his ability to deliver a single line with conviction seemingly bound up in the erstwhile whiskers of his top lip. His overcooked Oirish accent (“OI HATE PEOPLE LOYIN’ TO MOI!”) fatally undercuts any attempt at genuine menace, and just in case his dastardly antics didn’t tip us off that was a wrong’un, he’s also sporting an extravagant limp ‘n’ cane combo. In his first appearance, he’s seen torturing a hapless, shirtless crim, suggesting evil homosexual undertones. I’m sure director Grewal was aiming for a Blue Velvet-style peek at a depraved criminal underworld. Unfortunately, it all comes across the like the (rarely visited) Playbus S&M stop. Chloe Annett, later to make Red Dwarf fanboys erupt, (first with fury at the idea a girl crashing the sci-fi boys club, and then presumably with something else when they saw her in a catsuit) does what she can with a role that requires her to be tied up, look a bit sexy, and keep a straight face when confronted with some of the worst dialogue ever committed to celluloid. Perhaps surprisingly, it is the miscast Wisdom who fares best, imbuing one or two scenes with his daughter with a necessary touch of pathos.

Bernard Hill and William Katt: “Gissa decent script. Go on. Gis one”

On an artistic level, this film has absolutely nothing to recommend it. It is leadenly paced, disgracefully acted, erratically and confusingly edited, and despite containing one or two eye-wateringly, unintentionally hilarious scenes (the alarming moment when our jaded anti-hero shoots a naked man in the balls for no reason is literally one of the funniest things I have ever seen), Double X is generally too boring to recommend as a “so bad it’s good” style must-see. Says producer Noel Cronin in the cheerful DVD liner notes: “[the low budget] was a mixed blessing: good in that the film looked a lot better than the money allowed, but bad in the sense that the critics believed the film had been made on a far bigger budget … and reviewed it accordingly”. Cronin comes across as a likeable, enthusiastic guy, but the fact is Double X’s myriad problems can’t be attributed to its low budget. All the money in the world wasn’t going to get dialogue like – “I shot him in the back of the head” … “That sounds painful”, or, “…remember when I asked you for that steak and a Bible?” – to fly. Add in the poor performances and deep-rooted structural problems and you have a recipe for disaster. By way of comparison, Christopher Nolan’s still criminally underseen debut Following managed to convince as a taut, compelling thriller on a budget of around £4000.

There’s a superb sketch from Lee and Herring’s 90s TV showThis Morning With Richard not Judy, in which ‘Lazy Journalist Scum’ are castigated for the crime of using the uninspired formula of “x” (famous person) is like “y” (other famous person) on “z” (a particular type of drug)” to describe something. They use the example of sweat-ridden rubberface Lee Evans being “like Norman Wisdom … on acid!”, and illustrate this by staging a reconstruction portraying what Norman Wisdom would really be like… on acid. It’s funny, but it portrays a Norman Wisdom as confused and unsettled as I was trying to watch Double X. Were I one of those lazy journalists, I might be tempted describe Double X: The Name of the Game as a poor man’s Raymond Chandler on a lethal cocktail of crack and Diamond White. In lieu of no Double X trailer lurking about on YouTube, it seems rather apt to conclude with the aforementioned clip from TMWRNJ. Enjoy:

Films that you probably haven’t seen and definitely shouldn’t #3: Capone (1975, dir. Steve Carver)

"Fails comprehensively as a biopic"

You spend all your time beating people?

–  I take Sundays off.

Capone is exactly the type of film that is bound to disappoint, a forgotten exploitation flick whose odd casting and shady synopsis immediately brings to your mind rapturous images of forbidden cinema as you’re going over the wacky DVD jacket. A bit like when you were a kid and some obnoxious friend managed to stay up late enough on a school night to catch Basic Instinct or Scarface on TV and fill you in the next day on the graphic details that become the building blocks of your fantasy, until a belated vision of the actual film, years later, destroys the deviant masterpiece you created in your mind.

Last week, out of boredom and nostalgia, I started browsing 50 Years of American Cinema by Bertrand Tavernier (Round Midnight anyone?) and Jean-Pierre Courdoson, an absolute classic of francophone film literature and also my personal movie bible (sadly never translated into English). At the entry for the year 1975, my eyes were caught by the following description: Roger Corman manages to gather an interesting ensemble cast for his take on Capone: Ben Gazzara in the title role, John Cassavetes as Frankie Yale and a fresh-faced Sylvester Stallone as Frank Nitti.

What the fuck? How had I not heard of this before? Capone? Corman? Cassavetes? Stallone?!

Immediately, I started daydreaming, imagining a nonchalant, pre-David Chase take on the dullness of suburban thugism, floating fragments of drunken improvisation in true Noo Yawk tawk interrupted at carefully calculated intervals by the mandatory pear-shaped seventies tits and litres of fake bright-red blood that Corman required to guarantee the financing of his projects. Put simply, I saw Husbands with guns starring Rocky in the supporting role of the vicious enforcer; I pictured Ben Gazzara swaggering in leftover sets from The Godfather Part II in a tasty slice of exploitation cinema; I even dared to think I’d “discovered” an unfairly shelved Bloody Mama.

A quick look on Amazon informed me that it’s been reissued on DVD recently, and a week later so began my viewing of Capone, directed by Steve Carver; Carver who, instead of joining the rank of the New Hollywood royalty like his fellow alumni from the Roger Corman school (Scorsese, F.F. Coppola, Dennis Hopper, James Cameron, etc) went on to direct such gems as An Eye For An Eye with Chuck Norris. Remember the advice of Cassavetes (yes, that hypocrite again) to Scorsese after a screening of Boxcar Bertha, his only contribution to the Roger Corman’s catalogue? “Congratulations! You’ve spent a year of your life making shit!”. Well it appears no one was there to tell Carver…

The misleading VHS sleeve

So, how bad is Capone? Well, quite terrible, but not bad enough at the same time. Let me explain.

“After 45 years, the true story will be told!” promises the tagline. Hmm, I don’t know which story they were talking about, but Al Capone’s it ain’t. The film is so historically inaccurate that it makes De Palma’s The Untouchables look like an academic thesis in American Studies. To make things worse, Carver is completely ignorant of the rise-and-fall narrative convention that is the backbone of any gangster epic worth its salt. Where does Alphonso come from? How did he rise so fast? What caused the scars? Nobody seems to give a shit. In the first scene, the mafia top honchos call a greying Gazzara, easily in his forties, “kid” – that’ll suffice as an origin story, and if you’re not happy here’s some boobs! Look out, a machine gun!

Screenwriting was never the forte of Corman’s movies anyway. He would put half-baked concepts in production like he would tie his shoes, always rushing in to surf on the success of the latest box office hit – in this instance, quite clearly, The Godfather saga. Taking the time to write dialogue and a three-act structure would be a waste of time and money. Therefore, Capone fails comprehensively as a biopic – that was to be expected.

As a gangster flick, it fares no better. Carver fails to understand what makes mob fans tick: the tasteless bling, the lavish lifestyle, the “I’m just breaking baaaaaalls” banter, the impromptu bursts of violence. At some point, Capone seems to consist entirely of a succession of badly choreographed drive-by shootings and corny slo-mo. Sigh.

Moving on to the oddball cast, Ben Gazzara plays the mythic mobster with the same OTT approach favoured by Robert De Niro a decade later – arched eyebrow, big cigar in the corner of the mouth, bouncing shoulders, flashy dressing gown and loud “heeeeey, caaaaam’ooooon”s to punctuate every single utterance. John Cassavetes, the pope of American indie, appears half-heartedly in only ONE scene at the start (misleading advertising has always been the preferred marketing strategy of B-movies) and Sylvester Stallone is bafflingly miscast as a cool-headed, Machiavellian gangster (I shit you not), the brains rather than the muscle, lecturing the audience in the epilogue about the evil of violence (“Capone was stoopid yaknow, just killing people yaknow.”) Talk about a disappointment, and I was lucky enough not to see the fantastically fallacious VHS sleeve prior to researching this (Sly doesn’t fire a gun once in the film). So, if you’re looking for some snarky laughs at the WTF? assemblage of future stars and struggling auteurs in their starving years, Capone is kind of a let-down too. No one is downright awful, though you can almost hear the rumbling of the actors’ ravenous stomachs.

As with most exploitation films, however, its redeeming qualities are to be found in its inherent, dated cheapness. The vintage red fades, the Californian hills in the background of downtown Chicago, the gratuitous nudity (again), the glaring insertion of stock shots from an even worse-looking movie (The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre), the more-than-decent retro car chases (that’s probably where most of the micro-budget went), the ill-advised attempt at a stylish, dark photography, Coppola-style, during the sit-down scenes and a couple of off-colour improvised lines to be caught here and there. Capone’s blatant flaws are actually quite charming, but that hardly makes it essential viewing, even in a cheeky, postmodern way.

GG

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Films that you probably haven’t seen and definitely shouldn’t #2 – Gayn*ggers From Outer Space (1992, dir. Morten Lindberg)

Forget Glen or Glenda, The Room, White Chicks or Crash because here is, without question, the worst film that you are ever likely to happen across. Gayn*ggers From Outer Space, besides having one of the most offensive titles in the history of cinema, is a veritable cornucopia of stilted acting, beyond cheap special effects, crass stereotypes, misfiring attempts at humour and painful dubbing. It is not Danish cinema’s finest hour.

The plot, such as it is, concerns a gaggle of gay black men from the planet ‘Anus’ who intend to liberate a generation of cowed males by eliminating womankind with their ray guns.  I know. I know…

Despite the clear instruction provided in the title of this article, I have openly contradicted myself by including a clip from the film below. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.

Here, our friends plan to ‘clean’ Russia of women:

If you are confused by what’s going on, check out the cast of characters below for reference:

  • ArmInAss, a recent graduate of Gay Agent school, seeking the Mark of the Brown Ring and with it the status of a “True” Gaynigger
  • Capt. B. Dick, an experienced and wise leader
  • D. Ildo, an expert at genetic manipulation
  • Sgt. Shaved Balls, a space technician who has served with Captain B many years
  • Mr. Schwul, the German speaking chief engineer
  • The Gay Ambassador

Films that you probably haven’t seen and definitely shouldn’t #1 – Best Defense (1984, dir. Willard Huyck)

On paper, it was a bad idea...

Where to begin with 1984 ‘comedy’ Best Defense?  A film so monstrously ill-conceived and misshapen that John Merrick himself has been spotted studying it intently on his iPod to make himself feel better. We could start with the poster (left), which sets the tone by choosing ‘Unfortunately’ as it first word. We could start by asking why you’ve never heard of it before. But I think we’d better begin by issuing a solemn warning: AVOID THIS FILM AT ALL COSTS.

The plot, such as it is, concerns an engineer (played by a visibly disaffected, and possibly drunk, Dudley Moore) and his shambolic attempts to perfect the crucial on-board gyroscope for the new XM-10 Annihilator tank.  WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU’RE NOT INTERESTED?!

When test screenings of the film fell disastrously flat, the producers hit upon the idea of spicing up the action by drafting in Eddie Murphy – box office gold at the time – as a ‘strategic guest star’ (look – it says so on the poster).  Whether this billing was a witty allusion to the film’s military theme, or a dreadful error by a work experience lackey is immaterial. The bizarre insertion of a wildly over-the-top Murphy (who does little other than shout very loudly whilst inside a tank) renders an already convoluted plot totally incomprehensible, and the end-result is so bombastic, confusing and fundamentally unfunny that you’ll feel like you need a lie-down afterwards.

As pointed out by Time Out, the only thing (other than being terrible) that Best Defense is notable for is the “jaw-dropping plot development that has Iraq invading Kuwait, six years before Saddam did it for real”.

Brilliantly, when asked why he accepted the Best Defense challenge (he and Moore never share a second of screen time), Murphy is reported to have said “The door opened and four guys came in carrying a cheque”.

Such candid honesty is said to have attracted Mel B to Murphy in the first place.

For the best place to see Murphy in full-flow, check out the clip below; a genuinely frightening condensation of 1988 comedy Coming To America into a nightmare mash-up of Arsenio Hall-baiting, hypnotic repetition and disorienting wipes. Kudos to the troubled soul who took time out to put this little lot together…