In this installment: Hugh Jackman’s claws are clipped in more ways than one, a new refutation of objective quality and then a confusing refutation of that refutation.
The Wolverine (James Mangold, 2013), Cineworld
Maybe the worst you can say about The Wolverine is it’s a not-bad action movie, hamstrung by competing impulses. Instead of the 18-rated “Kurosawa’s Wolverine” teased by original director Darren Aronofsky, it’s stuck in the 12A world established by Brian Singer 13 years ago in X-Men (2000). A lot’s happened in those 13 years, including Nolan’s Batman trilogy (which demonstrated how to ‘dark’ within the limits of a 12-rating) and the full flowering of the Marvel Studios cinematic universe (which has managed the magic trick of pleasing fanboys and general audiences at the same time). Meanwhile, arguably the strongest and most interesting sub-section of the Marvel comic books universe has been unfolding on screen in a less than thrilling fashion, lately to diminishing returns. Jackman’s Wolverine is stuck in a mode where his deadly claws slash and tear mostly bloodlessly, bizarrely so, instead of rending limbs left right and centre. He’s allowed to swear conspicuously once a movie, just enough to provoke a teenage chuckle but not trouble the censor. His hair continues to be artfully coiffed, implying an uncharacteristic amount of effort teasing his hair just so, whenever he isn’t quasi-feral or in the rain.
The problem isn’t really Jackman, who earns his pay through genuine passion for the source material and a truly inspiring devotion to the physicality of the role (and, as a side bar, it’s great that he’s been able to stay with the role through six, soon to be seven, movies). Even in the movie that was supposed to dismiss the less than fond memories of X-Men Origins: Wolverine (Gavin Hood, 2009) and finally give Wolverine a chance to shine, he remains riveted to Singer’s tone and mythology. So he gets let of the leash, but only so far. Mangold’s movie seems to want to deliver on Aronofsky’s tease, but is allowed to only partially, which completely undermines it. In 2000, it was impressive enough to see the X-Men realised on screen at all, but in 2013 it’s no longer asking too much that comic book movies are simply unembarassing. The Wolverine, like the rest of the X-franchise, is really just OK and the audience deserves better.
Laserblast (Michael Rae, 1978), DVD
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the physical impossibility of watching all the films I’d like to see in one human lifetime. Then last week, after I wrote about Empire of the Sun, a pal praised my honesty in admitting I hadn’t seen it before, suggesting another writer might try to hide that fact. That reminded me of when I was blogging for Glasgow Film Festival and I recommended a screening of Heaven’s Gate, suggesting it was the right time to give it a chance, while noting that I myself still only knew it by reputation. One reader took issue with this and demanded of GFF, “Why hasn’t your blogger seen Heaven’s Gate?” Finally, I read Keith Phipps of The Dissolve pointing out that “one of the not-that-dirty secrets of this business is that those of us who write about movies don’t have time to see everything we aren’t reviewing, much less in a timely fashion.”
Audiences and reviewers alike are completely overwhelmed with choice these days – from multi-screen cinemas, art house cinemas, pop-up cinemas in odd venues, art galleries, pubs and clubs to TV movie channels and VOD to cheapo vanilla DVDs available on the high street, online stores and eBay and beautifully remastered Blu-rays packed with expertly-curated extras. Nevertheless, there seems to be a certain omniscience expected of film writers, at least if they want to be considered credible, and knowledge of “the canon” is a given. Well, I’ll be honest with you – I’ve not exhausted Bergman’s back catalogue and Stroheim is not my stronghold, but I have seen Starcrash and practically everything Larry Cohen’s had his fingers on. I’m writing about film because I love movies of all descriptions – discovering them for the first time and following my nose into strange territory – and I think it’s beyond fucking pointless to sustain the pretense of having seen all the ones I’m supposed to have seen in order to write about them credibly. So while I’ve seen a million movies, I’ve not made a particular point of exhausting the classics.
Nevertheless, I wouldn’t say I’m particularly predisposed to what a lot of people would call “the worst movies ever made.” Laserblast does make a better case than most for inclusion on that list – there’s almost nothing right about it. However, I’m really sceptical of the concept of “so-bad-they’re-good” movies, because more often than not it’s just an excuse for people to feel superior, and usually involves assuming the absolute worst of filmmakers. Snide, snobby and cynical – generally the opposite of what I’d aspire to as a film writer. So I contend it’s possible to enjoy the ingenuity, absurdity and sheer enjoyability of those movies, without sitting above them, snarking over the stupidity of everyone involved, safe in the knowledge that there’s no need to appreciate the movie – Upstream Color‘s for appreciating – on its own terms. It’s true, ironic appreciation thrives on a certain psychological distance to work, and these films generally invite it by severely testing the suspension of disbelief necessary in cinema. But too often quality is mistaken for worth and ‘good taste’ is the banner – and the bludgeon – of joyless aesthetes and cultural fascists.
But neither am I an apologist for terrible movies and while it’s a truism that nobody sets out to make a bad film, starting from the title backwards is not often the best approach. So, Laserblast: one of the worst films ever made, built backwards on a shoestring budget by B-movie producer Charles Band and now resurrected on DVD as part of 88 Films‘ Grindhouse Collection. The story is this: a bullied, loser kid finds strange weaponry, misplaced by aliens, then uses it first to take revenge on those that wrong him, then on anyone who gets in his way. Complicating matters are the aliens on his track, and the fact that using the weaponry is gradually transforming the kid into a monstrous killing machine. So, to sum up, Laserblast is awesome…in theory. In another dimension, Michael Bay and Shia LeBeouf could have remade this instead of Transformers and delivered a diverting summer blockbuster. Michael Rae’s Laserblast, though, fucks things up the basic concept in a much more interesting way.
Miscast to such an extent that archetypal 80s nerd Eddie Deezen plays one of the jock bullies, the movie also tries to pass off the preening, 27-year-old Kim Milford as the bullied loser – immediately lending an awkward air of confused eroticism to an early stand-off with his feckless mother. The cut-price score has its characters grooving to library rock ‘n’ roll and the aliens are rudimentary stop-motion who seem to share a common tongue with the Clangers. The filmmakers also have the brass balls to reference Star Wars the year after it came out (Deezen’s character has apparently seen it five times) and conjure a convincing sense of danger with several molten, mushroom-clouding explosions (one of which makes toast of a Star Wars billboard), shot from several angles and thus milked for all their worth. It also features several prolonged shots of an exultant transmogrified Milford, reveling shamelessly in the destruction he has wrought.
I can’t think of any other film like it, which, to me, justifies its longevity. 88 Films’ motto is “Classic movies treated with respect,” and I for one am grateful for how elastic the definition of ‘classic’ is in 2013.
Time Bandits (Terry Gilliam, 1981), Blu-ray
On the other hand, Arrow Films are continuing to do an impressive job of curating and canonising B-movies, maligned masterpieces and genre curios. They’ve become kind of like the movie distribution equivalent of an indie record label whose fans will buy anything they release just because they’re releasing it and I have to say it’s actually gosh darn delightful to rediscover Time Bandits with their immaculate Blu-ray release. Although Terry Gilliam co-wrote with fellow ex-Python Michael Palin (the latter fleshing out Gilliam’s rampant storytelling with expert characterisation) and starring roles for Palin and John Cleese gave it a marketing headstart, Time Bandits is nevertheless the point that established the adjective “Gilliamesque” as opposed to “Pythonesque”. Bursting with high adventure, thrilling action, absurd comedy and unforced pathos, Time Bandits is dreamlike and nightmarish in equal measure. It’s a perfect marriage of wild imagination and expert craft, a rare alchemy at any point, let alone now.
The new restoration is stunning, highlighting the ingenious practical effects (only a stray bit of masking tape on one set has been digitally tweaked out of existence), production design and cinematography. The tactility that Gilliam conjures up through the various historical periods is still hugely impressive. But more than anything it’s all hugely enjoyable, and the climactic showdown with David Warner’s Evil amongst the enormous grey Lego bricks of the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness is more fun to watch than most movies manage to deliver in 90 minutes. And that ending! I’m not going to spoil it for anyone that’s not seen it (although it’s not a twist, per se), but it’s perfectly symbolic of how singular this movie is. Gilliam reveals in Arrow’s supplementary interview how he managed to circumvent studio test audience feedback to keep it in. Asked what they liked best about the movie, several unimpressed jokers had scrawled “the end,” allowing Gilliam to fox overly literal, stats-focussed marketing men. Time Bandits ended up being number one film in America for five weeks.
Gilliam also tells of being praised to this day for casting dwarf actors in lead roles – he wanted to tell his story from a kid’s point of view, but reasoned a kid couldn’t hold a whole movie and would therefore need a gang of similar height – but the Bandits themselves are frustratingly absent from the otherwise pretty thorough supplementary material (there’s also reportedly some shot but unused scenes that may well be lost). By my account, David Rappaport, Jack Purvis and Tiny Ross are sadly no longer with us, but Kenny Baker, Malcolm Dixon and Mike Edmonds are still alive, as is Craig Warnock. Though the interviews with Gilliam, Palin, David Warner and key member of the creative team are fascinating, it would’ve been great to hear the Bandits’ stories too. I did contact Arrow to try and puzzle out their non-appearance but I didn’t hear anything back. No reason why they’d need to respond to little old me (their time is definitely better spent putting together upcoming releases like Brian de Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise) and anyway it’s a minor niggle with an otherwise deeply satisfying package. If you’ve never seen Time Bandits, I’d recommend addressing that immediately. Laserblast, at your leisure.