Ready or Not 2019 ****

Ready or not

The future of the Fox Searchlight brand is under question after the Fox studio was bought over by Disney; certainly, it’s hard to see how such a red-in-tooth-and-claw comedy-thriller with Satanic overtones like Ready or Not might fit into the wholesome Disney brand. Directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett from a screenplay by Guy Busick and R. Christopher Murphy, Ready or Not is a horror film in the idiom of Get Out, and features a young couple whose mutual distrust grows during her introduction to his rich and powerful family. But the two films are very different in tone, with Ready or Not featuring a brisk and busy evocation of country house mayhem that’s in tune with the recent Knives Out. There’s an agreeable Gothic flavour that hints at the supernatural elements which are accentuated as the plot develops.

Things starts innocuously enough; Samara Weaving is Grace, who arrives at the house of the Le Domas family with her prospective husband Alex, played by Gilmour Girls star Adam Brody. The Le Domas family have made their fortune from board games, and Grace is happy with the idea of taking her place at the family table, until it emerges there’s a ritual to complete. A game must be played, and Grace must pick a card at random; the one she chooses dismays the family, as it says “Hide and Seek’. This means that Grace must hide, and the rest of the family must seek her out, but the stakes are higher than is immediately apparent, and one shocking act of violence leads to another.

The end of this decade has seen an increase of films that view the rich as something other than a club that inspires us to join; we don’t admire the Kardashians, we hate them because we sense that their good –fortune is built on the back of our own pain. The rich and affluent are uncovered as preying on the other echelons of society, and Ready or Not is suffused with tart social criticism. The violence is spiky, the narrative manages some clever slight of hand, and clichés of the Most Dangerous Game variety are generally turned on their heads. Early on, Grace views herself in the mirror, her wedding dress torn and blood-splattered, an ammunition belt around her waist; niceties have been damned, and she sees herself clearly for the first time as a warrior in a battle for her class.

Ready or Not was a sizeable hit, but didn’t reach the huge audience it deserved; the box-office numbers of a Get Out or a Halloween should have been the reward for such an original and satisfying film. An illustrious history on streaming awaits; Ready or Not is a super-smart B movie that offers a dark, splattery note on the margins of society’s growing divisions circa 2019.

Hawk The Slayer 1980 ***

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There must be something about the worthy quality of film-watching during awards season that makes it so appealing to file copy on so-bad-it’s-good entries. And so we return to the sacred text of Hawk the Slayer, a bizarre fantasy film by Terry Marcel which featured briefly in Netflix’s recent Maniac tv show. Why would a hot director like Cary Joji Fukunaga be a fan? Well, because Hawk the Slayer is one of the cheesiest films ever made, and that’s the appeal; if you’re looking for production values, imaginative plotting and social relevance, stay away. If venerable British character actors, Morricone-goes-disco music cues and shonky dialogue are palatable to you then Hawk slays over and over again, much like an automatic crossbow.

Yes, automatic cross-bows are a big thing in this film, but then, so is dialogue like ‘The hunchback will have something to say about this!’ Hawk the Slayer is set, according to the poster, in a word of sword and sorcery, one where Voltar (Jack Palance) reigns supreme. His brother is Hawk (John Terry), and a flashback reveals that Voltar tied Hawk to a tree and tried to make things happen romantically with Hawk’s wife (Catriona MacColl), a plan which ended badly. The two bothers are sworn enemies, and things get worse when a survivor of one of Voltan’s massacres seeks sanctuary in a monastery, encouraging Voltan to kidnap the Abbess (Annette Crosbie). Hawk sets out to rescue her, with the help of a merry band including a dwarf, a sorceress (Patricia Quinn), a giant (Bernard Bresslaw) and a quick-firing elf.

There’s some familiar names in there, and even more further down the cast list; Roy Kinnear, Harry Andrews, Patrick Macgee, Ferdy Marne, Warren Clarke, Graham Stark and more all appear as Hawk gets bogged down in all kind of inessential sub-plots. But things are pulled along by a weird production design that features lots of fog and lots of Star Wars-lazer effects, plus a rousing score by Harry Robinson hiding under the name Robertson; imagine Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds and you’ll have a handle on the epic disco sound featured here.

Hawk the Slayer wears various Star Wars influences with pride; Voltan’s helmet is much like Darth Vader’s, and the explanation for why he wears it is familiar. It’s worth remembering that one of the appealing elements for children seeing Star Wars back in 1977/8 was that it was never revealed what was under Darth Vader’s mask, and a sequel seemed inevitable for that purpose. That sense of mystery arguably created today’s franchise cinema.

Hawk The Slayer might be a rip-off, but it’s a fun, idiosyncratic film that’s gaining momentum as a cult item; if Fukunaga has James Bond watching this is No Time To Die, it would make some kind of sense, although you’d have to use the same goofy logic as an automatic crossbow requires.

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Cry Onion 1975 ****

onionWith a title that’s right up there alongside Surprise Sock in the ‘surely not?’ mistranslation stakes, Cry Onion lives up to a silly name by being the mother lode for onion fans. A nice find on Amazon Prime, Enzo G Castellari’s 1975 Western should ensnare a few viewers on sheer curiosity value. The setting is a Western town called Paradise City, but the grass is not green and the girls are not pretty. If someone does take you down to Paradise City, then you’ll likely be smelling of onions for days.

Cry Onion opens with a frank description of onion juggling, before unfolding a wider picture of the root vegetable and what possible uses they might have. Onions are eaten, used as weapons, drunk; even the main character’s name is Onion. Played by the great Franco Nero, Onion is an onion farmer who loves onions, and is prepared to fight for his life to protect his onion crop. Onions are to him what melons are to Mr Majestyk or bananas to Mike Connors in Kiss the Girls and Make Them Die; they’re our hero’s way of life.

It’s always hard to assemble a great cast for a low-budget film, but when the subject is onions, the big names assemble. Nero is sending up his Django role, with the assistance of Sterling Hayden, fresh from working with Sam Peckinpah and Stanley Kubrick, while Martin Balsam uses his experience of working for Hitchcock to play a land-owner who reveals an Inspector Gadget metal hand on a ten foot retractable arm during the final fight sequence. Onion also has help in the form of Archie, a farting white horse in a straw hat, and two comedy child gangsters.

Cry Onion is a burlesque film in the vein of Loaded Guns; it’s a parody that eventually loses momentum due to reliance on speeded-up fight scenes and circus choreography. It’s also a lot of fun, with the impeccable Nero wide-eyed and mugging like crazy, but in the context of the madness around him, catching the mood of this crazy, crazy film admirably.

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Brittany Runs A Marathon 2018 ****

_109489079_brittany118rBrittany Runs A Marathon gives Jillian Bell the big leading role that every actress craves; one that should see her break out from a notable supporting player to a genuine high-wattage star. Although writer/director Paul Downs Colaizzo’s film deals with serious issues including depression, self-image, obesity and substance abuse, it’s also a sunny, satisfying crowd-pleaser that gets a huge lift from Bell’s winning performance.

The title says it all; Brittany Forglar is a 28 year old woman living in NYC who decides to run in the New York Marathon. A doctor, ‘cheap and good’ so Brittany has heard, is enlisted in the hope of scoring some Adderall, but instead informs Brittany that she’s technically obese. Initially suspicious of his diagnosis, Brittany is befriended by a neighbour Catherine (In A World’s excellent Micheala Watkins) who encourages her to run off the extraneous body-fat, but there are other lifestyle choices required. Brittany’s sense of herself is entwined with her party-animal life-choices, and giving up drink, drugs, sexual-abasement and other vices won’t happen easily. Meanwhile a search for employment takes Brittany far from advertising, and into the orbit of a maverick house-sitter called Jern (Utkarsh Ambudkar) who shakes up Brittany’s ideas even further…

‘This was never about running a marathon’ one of the other characters notes, and Colaizzo’s film is much more than just a be-all-you-can-be sports movie. Forglar is introduced improvising a storm of one-liners while working in the foyer of a theatre; Bell shows that she can not just hold the spotlight, but bend it to her will. Bell makes Brittany Forglar a memorable character, someone who has potential, but bends and buckles into bitterness when that potential isn’t realised; there’s a vicious scene late on when she lashes out at another woman that’s raw and uncomfortable.

Without getting into spoiler territory, it’s no surprise when Brittany breaks down while running the marathon; what is surprising is how intensely involving it is to see her bent double by the side of the road, while a race marshal calmly attempts to ascertain her state-of wellbeing. This is a story about judgement; about fearing and evading judgement, and about how we judge and label ourselves. It’s a message that doesn’t quite make it into the credits; a character is described as ‘overweight woman’ where ‘woman running for subway’ would be a little less judge-y.

Brittany Runs a Marathon’s sudden appearance on Amazon Prime offers an alternative route to success; the Netflix bug for using cinema only as a showcase has clearly had an influence on the streaming channel. That may slow down the recognition factor here; Jillian Bell gives the kind of big-hearted performance that could well have made her an awards contender, and she’ll probably have to settle for great word-of mouth; either way, she and her movie are outright winners, and not just making up the numbers.

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In Like Flint 1967 ***

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The Derek Flint franchise didn’t last long; the success of 1966’s Our Man Flint led to a very quick turnaround for this sequel, which doesn’t offer the same large-scale climax and feels more like a prequel with reduced stakes and smaller set-pieces. In Like Flint brings back most of the same elements, from Lee J Cobb as boss Lloyd C Cramden to Jerry Goldmith’s soaring score, but the effect, while diminished, still has enough pep to keep things watchable.

If the first film saw Flint as a women’s liberator, In Like Flint sees him caught up in a war between men and women, specifically the Fabulous Face organisation created by women to attack the patriarchy. Based on the evidence of this film, that kind of overthrowing of male oppression might well be a good thing; men seem stuffy and complacent, while the feminist rebels are well attired, forward thinking and have considerable agency. They kidnap the US president mid-golf swing and plan to use him to commandeer nuclear missiles to achieve their goals; there’s only one man for the job, and Derek Flint (James Coburn) is pressed into service.

Fabulous Face might have their hearts in the right place by 2019 standards, but their methods are clearly oppressive; brainwashing women with subliminal messages transmitted through hair-dryers in salons. Such ingenuity comes in flashes in Gordon Douglas’s film, which otherwise gets bogged down in such resistable trivia as Lee J Cobb in drag. Crucially, Flint himself spends a lot of time off-screen, leaving a number of scenes high and dry and without purpose. Excursions to Moscow to see Flint perform at the ballet are unconvincingly rendered, and despite the Cinemascope vistas, there’s usually not much to see other than half-dressed women sidling up to Flint with seduction or deception on their minds.

In Like Flint wasn’t as bad as I remembered; the glossy look, daft ideas and Coburn’s super-cool performance keep things on track. But it’s a shame that Flint will always be remembered as an ersatz Bond; the character had mileage, but In Like Flint lacks the budget to deliver on it’s hero’s debonair promise.

 

Our Man Flint 1966 ****

Our-Man-Flint-posterPerhaps a ‘franchises of yesteryear’ tag is required for the Derek Flint IP, now forgotten, but originally conceived and executed with the aim of giving James Bond a run for his money. The two Flint films are parodies of the Bond universe, but not out-and-out parody like the Austin Powers films; for the many who grew up with Our Man Flint as a Saturday night tv staple, there wasn’t much to choose between the laconic due of Flint and Bond.

Certainly, Fox got the right man for the job in terms of James Coburn. Already a household name from The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape, Coburn was a lithe, charismatic leading man, ideal for a super-spy like Flint. Flint is portrayed as a ladies man, obviously, but also a martial arts guru, a fitness freak, a master of weapons and has a Holmesian gift for science and detection. Most significantly of all, Flint is American; in the first film, he notes an eagle used for nefarious purposes ‘An Anti-American eagle, that’s diabolical!’ he muses, and it’s clear that Flint is a home-grown US studio riposte to the Bond stiff-upper lip.

Our Man Flint takes a while to get going, with Flint engaging in a number of minor side-missions in his efforts to represent ZOWIE, the Zonal Organization for World Intelligence and Espionage in their battle against the fiendish GALAXY, who are using the weather to hold the world to ransom; strangling a thug named Hans Gruber in a toilet stall in Marseilles is probably the highlight. But once the action shifts to Galaxy island, a remote encampment where women are hypnotised into being pleasure units as a brand extension for Galaxy, whose motto is “Communication and Control’, Our Man Flint hits a more swaggering gear. Derek Flint infiltrates their compound and whispers ‘You are not a pleasure unit’ to the many bikini-clad girls inside, a white male saviour to lead a feminist revolution.

Our Man Flint is one of the best off-brand Bond variations, with an excellent leading man, a slightly different angle, and a climax that’s certainly in the right ball-park in terms of combatting excess with excess; the Galaxy compound, complete with an aerial monorail, is something to beyond, as are the rather cool jumpsuits that Coburn wears. On this evidence, there’s plenty to suggest that Flint could have rivalled Bond, but alas, a cut-price sequel cut off the oxygen before Our Man could really breathe.

The Tingler 1959 ***

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William Castle is a somewhat neglected figure, perhaps because he staked his reputation on novelties, some would say gimmicks, which were dated from the moment they appeared. Such felicities as having a skeleton appear above a cinema screen seem rather old fashioned in the shadow of IMAX 4DX. So it’s rather nice to see The Tingler appear on Amazon Prime is a natty new print that makes it ripe for rediscovery.

What’s surprising here, given Castle’s reputation, is the ingenious nature of the whole conceit. The Tingler is a horror film, but one that operates in a specific and rather post-modern way. Vincent Price plays Warren Chapin, a scientist who has been working to isolate the Tingler, a creature that feeds on fear; it appears inside the human body, often at the instant of death, and Chapin is keen to isolate it. Many boffins might have been tempted to use illegal means to pursue this goal, but fortunately LSD was legal in the US at the time, and The Tingler features the spectacle of Price and other cast-members cheerfully blowing their own minds and (pretending to) trip on acid.

This in itself is odd enough, but things get weirder when Chapin meets a woman who is a deaf mute and is unable to express herself; she’s got a lifetime of fear bottled up inside her and is ready to blow like a bottle of champagne, releasing a mega-tingler. Her husband owns a silent-movie theatre which appears to be showing 1921’s Tol’able David in a permanent loop, and when The Tingler escapes, it escapes into the theatre and begins tingling the occupants of the seats.

This leads to a quite wonderful sequence in which you, the viewer, find yourself watching the same silent movie, with Vincent Price on the soundtrack warning you about dangerous creatures on the loose and potentially assaulting your backside. It places the audience in the movie in an absurd and yet ingenuous way; there’s also a brilliant scare involving a splash of blood-red in an otherwise black and white movie. With a frank view of drugs, plus some meta-narrative twists, The Tinger is a great way to waste 80 minutes, and shows that 1959’s cinema showmen had plenty of ingenuity as the on-going battle with tv hotted up.

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