Little Hands/ Les Petites Mains 2019 ****

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Another powder-keg element of 2019 has been the on-going unrest in France; the country associated with the idea of revolution seemed to be tearing itself apart in a series of riots and a growing awareness of social disparity. Writer/director Rémi Allier’ short film won a Cesar award in 2019, and capturing a mood before such fissures made headline news; nevertheless, Little Hands does an effective job of situating itself firmly in the hot-spot between the have’s and the have-not’s.

Specifically, it’s the story of an industrial dispute that goes out of hand; a chemical factory is being closed, and a desperate employee decides to escalate the struggle between workers and management. Bruno (Jan Hammenecker) impulsively grabs for the child of his boss, and takes little Leo (Émile Moulron) as hostage. As his phone rings, and the realisation of the hopelessness of his action hits him, Bruno finds an unexpected connection which motivates him to make a dramatic decision.

Little Hands is shot with a string sense of moment; we see things tightly from Leo’s point of view, the zip of Bruno’s jacket flailing as he runs with the child. And that tightness of angle is vital in understanding that Little Hands is not an irresponsible call to violence, as in film de jour Joker, but the opposite, a plea for understanding. How do we explain the extremity of our actions to young people, who don’t know or understand the sense of grievance that we carry? Little Hands is only 15 minutes long, but communicates a commendably to-the-point answer to the question.

Rémi Allier may only be a young film-maker, but there’s real skill and insight in this short; there’s a trailer below, and hopefully we’ll have a link to the whole film once the film’s race is run on the festival and awards circuit.

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Love at First Bite 1979 ***

After sampling the reputedly toxic, morally corrosive substances emitted by the Joker movie, the immediate consequences involved watching a short season of George Hamilton comedies, something worth holding the film-makers of Joker directly responsible for. Having followed up on their quote of Zorro The Gay Blade, it seemed natural to look back a couple of years to the film that Hamilton was attempting to recapture the magic of; Love at First Bite.

Stan Dragosi’s comedy was a breakout hit in 1979, but has since fallen by the wayside, partly because of some hideous stereotyping; black characters are little more than cheerful thieves in the Manhattan that Count Dracula visits. Copyright issues involving a featured Alicia Bridges song have also muted re-release plans. Dracula goes disco’ would be a better title for this film, in which the Count faces a fish-out-of-water culture clash as he encounters nightclubs, modelling shoots, psychiatry and various other late 70’s touchstones. Along the way, a shrink who is related to nemesis Van Helsing (Richard Benjamin) gets wind of the count’s plans and a duel of wits follows.

Love at First Bite is a more interesting film that a rather sketchy reputation might suggest; this isn’t quite Bram Stoker’s Dracula in that the count can shoot steam jets from his mouth, bend metal with his stare, transform himself into a dog and control a horse and cart with his mind. The world he encounters is recognisably 1970’s, but it’s odd how some characters recognise the Dracula brand, and others don’t; Love at First Bite is so keen to get laughs it can’t maintain a consistent universe.

That said, Hamilton is a laugh here, playing straight and with great style in the way he’s constantly undercutting of his own gravity. Arte Johnson does well as his cockroach-loving sidekick Renfield, and there’s a few wierdly caustic lines like a psychiatrist saying ‘If you don’t pay for it, it won’t get better’ or a conquest who excuses her messy apartment by saying ‘I hate housework, it killed my mother’. The time-frame jokes are many and varied, but the best scene, a hypnosis duel, is timeless and a great moment; sure, Love at First Bite may have a few regrettable scenes, but there’s plenty of comedy meat on these often gnawed bones.

Zorro The Gay Blade 1981 ***

It is becoming something of a ‘thing’ for film-makers to point out their inspirations by having a movie theatre prominently placed within their work. That’s fine if, as in It Chapter 1, the point is to pin down in time the specific summer that Derry’s local cinema is showing Batman and Lethal Weapon 2.  The device feels a bit more laboured when Zack Snyder pans over a 1981 cinema showing Excalibur in Batman Vs Superman, or Todd Phillips recreates the marquee signage from the same year of Brian De Palma’s Blow Out in Joker.

Equally prominent in the same shot is Peter Medak’s Zorro The Gay Blade, a rather more neglected text that De Palma’s much frothed-over if effective thriller. Given Joker’s rejection of laughter, from clowns to Chaplin, is the suggestion that George Hamilton’s ‘zany, zexy, spectacular’ parody of the much loved swordsman signifies the death of comedy? Or could Arthur Fleck have been diverted from his murderous purpose if he’d just let a little spray-tanned self-deprecation into his life? The bottom line is that while real-world movies seem to exist in both DC and Marvel universes, it’s kind of hard to see how Zorro The Gay Blade exists in the miserablist world of Joker.

Zorro The Gay Blade certainly delivers on its title; Hamilton plays Diego, a athletic ladies man who doubles up as Zorro. An injury causes him to shirk his duties, and his flamboyantly camp brother Bunny Wrigglesworth (also Hamilton)  takes his place. Wrigglesworth prefers a whip to a sword and constructs a suit and cape combo in gold lame rather than black as he attempts to personalise the classic style of the Zorro brand.

Medak, who made The Ruling Class and has been touring with his Ghost of Peter Sellers film, was quite a craftsman, and assembles some great suppor for Hamiltont, from Ron Lieberman’s shouty villain to Lauren Hutton and Brenda Vaccarro, plus some well-staged action scenes. The stereotypes are larger than life, but not exactly crude; in fact, for 1981, they’re positively progressive.

Hamilton’s brief period as a bankable movie lead post his big Love At First Bite success ended with the muted reception for this film, but he’s in his element here, sending up his good looks and throwing himself into drag; it’s an anything for a laugh film. At a time when comic-book characters are getting so serious, it’s nice to see such an amiable, lightweight comedy, although what the over-analytical Joker fanboys will make of this as a reference to pore over is anyone’s guess.

Dirty Weekend 1993

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Michael Winner was an A-list British director, who made a number of decent 1960’s comedies, then hit big with Death Wish and the sequels. He turned down the chance to make everything from The French Connection to Jaws, including the James Bond franchise. His regular TV appearances made him a household name in the UK; in 2011, David Cameron did a Michael Winner impression during Prime Minister’s question time. And despite his name being synonymous with bad taste, a number of his films (The Jokers, The Sentinel ) are pretty watchable. Dirty Weekend was his second last film, and it’s a bleak reworking of the Death Wish theme, but this time from a female point of view. Adapted with Winner from her own book, Helen Zahavi’s story depicts a young woman Bella (Lia Williams) who finds herself preyed on by various seedy men in the seaside town of Brighton, and takes revenge by killing them. Amongst those she encounters are Rufus Sewell as a Peeping Tom, an Iranian clairvoyant (Star Wars star Ian Richardson in blackface) and a dentist (Man from Uncle and NCIS star David McCallum). It feels like Michael Winner made Dirty Weekend to demonstrate some kind of kinship with feminists, but the result feels like a gross appropriation. It’s hard to recommend this horrid, ill-judged film, and yet it’s unequivocal in his condemnation of misogyny, and that seems to be why it was lambasted on release, and promptly banned by the BBFC for years. It’s no hidden gem, in fact it’s tone deaf to women, but as an example of how feminists are correct to fear men co-opting their arguments, it’s not without some kind of historical interest now that it washes up, briefly one assumes, on the most polluted shores of You Tube.

Parting Shots 1999 ***

Michael Winner was something of a tricky figure to sum up; he made a number of films in different modes, from swinging 60’s comedies to hard, violent dramas in the 70’s, notably Death Wish and a series of dour collaborations with Charles Bronson. His later films switch between horror (The Sentinel, Scream for Help), period (The Wicked Lady, Appointment with Death) and any other genre that took his fancy, including a failed attempt to make Captain America with Stan Lee. For his final film, Winner brought together a selection of his favourite actors and friends including Oliver Reed, Bob Hoskins, Ben Kingsley and John Cleese. Cult fans will appreciate the combination of Dr Who stars Peter Davidson and Nicola Bryant, or a New Avengers reunion in the form of Gareth Hunt and Joanna Lumley, alongside fellow Bond girl Diana Rigg. The only problem with this star-studded line-up is the material, a script written by Winner from his own idea revisits Death Wish but as a comedy. It’s about a man called Harry who finds out he has inoperable cancer, and decides to buy a gun and kill everyone who he perceives as having wronged him. For reasons which can only be explained by the director’s vanity, AOR rocker Chris Rea, with no acting experience, plays Harry, and his presence not only jars every scene he’s in, but his music doesn’t fit the film’s themes at all. That’s Winner’s fault rather than Rea’s, but the rest of the score doesn’t help; it feels lifted from a Carry-On film. Parting Shots was derided on release as being in dubious taste, but there’s no sex, bad language or grossness, the whole notion of the film seems like a terrible idea and the execution is bland. Winner was trying to pull off a black comedy he doesn’t have the chops for, but there is something vaguely interesting about his inversion of the vigilante theme for comic effect. Fans of the considerable cast have been disappointed in Parting Shots, which has a reputation as one of the worst films ever made, but as a snapshot of a cross-section of resistible London media glitterati circa 1999, including BBC political commentator Andrew Neil in an inessential cameo, it’s not without sociological value.

True Romance 1992 *****

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The late Tony Scott was something of a cinematic powerhouse, whose work was consistently underrated; a note on his Wikipedia page says that after The Hunger, he stopped reading the vitriolic reviews his film inspired. Most of these critics are long gone now, but Scott’s canon endures; hits like Top Gun, Crimson Tide and Enemy of the State are all better than average blockbusters, but his other works are remarkable in their consistency; Revenge, The Last Boy Scout, Man on Fire or Unstoppable would be highlights in any director’s resume, whether they appeased the public or not. His best film was a flop; 1992’s True Romance gave Scott a super-hot script, and he did it proud; Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette are ideal as Clarence and Alabama, young newly-weds who scram from snowy Detroit to sunny LA after he romantically murders her pimp Drexl (Gary Oldman under dreadlocks and prosthetics). All kinds of talent are shown to their best advantage here, from Bronson Pinochet’s coke-addled flunky to Brad Pitt’s avuncular stoner Floyd via James Gandolfini’s memorable thug. Scott creates the requisite tension, but also creates two vibrant, dynamic worlds for his characters to inhabit. And at the centre is one of cinema’s greatest scenes; a confrontation between Clarence’s cop father Clifford (Dennis Hopper) and mobster Cocotti (Christopher Walken). Two experienced actors with some great dialogue; Scott gets the best out of them as Cocotti’s threats raise Clifford’s awareness of his predicament. From the moment Clifford accepts his last cigarette, the dynamics of the scene change and it becomes a meditation on defiance in the face of death. Ridley Scott has given interviews regarding the family history of cancer which throw some light on his brother’s suicide; Scott’s elegiac handling of True Romance’s highpoint throws further illumination. Unfairly derided as a man who placed style over content, Tony Scott was in the deep end while most directors were just splashing in the shallows.

Cannonball 1976 ***

cannonball-3The no-hold-barred, cross-country car-race became familiar via The Gumball Rally and The Cannonball Run films; Paul Bartel’s Cannonball was a pioneering entry in this subgenre, with David Carradine’s character Coy “Cannonball” Buckman taking some inspiration from Edwin G ‘Cannon Ball’ Baker. There’s a whole lot of cannon-balling in that intro, but there’s even more in this Roger Corman film, which has a decidedly shaky tone. Bartel had ben asked by Corman to beef up the content featured in Death Race 2000, and this chaotic mess of a film does exactly that, with plenty of violent deaths which run counter to the otherwise sunny outlook. Racing against Coy and his girl Linda (Veronica Hamel from Hill Street Blues) are brother Robert Carradine, Mary Wonorov as one of the ‘game girls in a van’ team, Dick Dastardly-lite Wolfe Messer (James Keach) and singer-songwriter Penman Waters (Gerritt Graham). As if that’s not enough, there’s also Dick Miller getting beaten up while Bartel serenades him on a grand piano, blink-and-you’ll-miss them cameos from Sylvester Stallone and Martin Scorsese, plus producer Don Simpson as a DA. Cannonball wears its thirst for carnage on its sleeve, and hopes the audience will feel the same. ‘See the worlds biggest pile-up!’ the poster screams, but the bloodshed sits uneasily with the silly comedy, and the idea of a road race in which dozens of people die is a conundrum the film’s lightweight resolution fails to address. The Cannonball myth was refined for more popular films; Bartel’s 1976 film is still something of a curiosity piece.