Monday, August 27, 2018

Review: Miracle Mile (1989)

By Mark Wilkinson

Listen, i'm just a guy that picked up the phone.

 Miracle Mile Follows the tale of Harry Washello. A hopeless romantic who meets the woman of his dreams Julie and they fall completely in love within the few hours they spend together, strolling through the LA landscape in a hazy daze of 80’s summery love. They arrange to meet up again at midnight outside Julie’s work when her shift finishes. Harry however, manages to oversleep from his nap due to a power cut in his hotel, he finally wakes up after 3am and frantically dashes to the cafe hoping he hasn’t ruined his chances with his perfect woman. As you might expect, disheartened Julie has long gone when he arrives. He tries calling her in the phone booth outside, but to no avail. Moments later the phone starts to ring and Harry instinctively goes back and takes the call. It’s not Julie on the other end though, but a shaken young soldier named Chip who’s allegedly calling from a missile silo in North Dakota. Chip has misdialled and believes he’s talking to his father, frantically imparting some devastating news, nuclear missiles are on their way in approximately 70 minutes. There’s a sound of gunfire on the line and then Chip is silenced. Shocked and unsure if the caller was genuine or a sick prank caller. What ensues is a Kafkaesque journey through the barren early morning streets of Los Angeles, where anything and everything goes, as Harry sets out to find Julie and escape L.A. whilst also trying to make sense of all the escalating madness, all in the span of some of the most bizarre, heart-stopping hour-and-twenty-minutes ever put to film.

 And what a delightful anxiety-riddled batch of madness it is, all brought to life through Steve Jarnatt’s excellent direction, Theo van de Sande’s eye-catching cinematography and the implementation of a constricted time window. Miracle mile has some of the most confident and consistent styles I've seen put to film. It's a fever dream of music, tension and bright and popping colours that efficiently and flawlessly create a world of ever-present menace, paranoia and anxiety; constantly yet subtlety cranking up the absurdity as the possibility of the worlds-end draws near. De Jarnatt completely understands how to use every frame of his film and how to extract everything from LA and the strip of Miracle Mile, aiding it to carve out the movies distinct personality. Tangerine Dream's completely mesmerising and sparkling score pulsates almost constantly, replicating our heartbeats whilst also venturing into some powerful synthesized soundscapes that help accentuate just how wonderfully strange this night is.

 One of the strongest parts of the movie is the colourful and lively characters that are on display throughout. The aforementioned couple of harry and Julie are adorably endearing, yet it's the amazing cast of eccentrics (played by almost every amazing character-actor from the 80’s) that they encounter amidst the chaos of the films runtime that really bring forward the movies frantic and fun spirit. Although the movie never rests in order to spend time on character development or narrative development, they are still there in abundance - this is a film that is purposeful and surgical in every single frame it uses. It's committed to a confrontation with fate, and when heroics become increasingly silly and unsustainable, we see the characters, especially Harry, contend with the monumentality of the inevitable. It is a story about romance in the face of the apocalypse, a tale about missed chances and the significance of one's individual happiness in the face of mankind's greatest catastrophe. Rich in emotional resonance Neck-deep in the feel of hopeless, late-night scrambling’s and boiling over with tension.

 Although its tone and general mood veer towards the area of nihilism, there’s an ever-running sense of optimism and hope lying underneath the hysteria. Present solely in the characters of Harry and Julie, full of heart and infatuation for one another, who serve as the perfect counterweight to the madness presented on screen. They embody that one magical feeling that makes humans so unique and the one thing to remember mankind by--Love. Love may just be the decisive factor for humanity, an aspect which has the ability to change people altogether, especially considering a scenario like the inevitable doom of the human race, a time of survival and thinking solely for oneself. Love is still possible, it happens during the best of times, yet also the worst of times, including humanity’s final hour.

 Miracle Mile is, in its purest form, a devastating film, one that brings to the forefront of its audience the insanity the universe can thrust upon us at any given moment, but it’s also one which tells its viewers that, whatever outcome fate may bring us to, there’s nothing to fear so long as we are surrounded by the people we love, as well as the drive to live our lives to the fullest extent. It’s a tragedy, but it’s one where humanity will be remembered not for its selfishness in the midst of madness and chaos but instead their innate ability to live, love, and care for one another. It's beautiful, fun, sweet and also emotionally devastating. Furthermore, it is without a doubt, unforgettable.

Miracle Mile Is Available Now On Blu Ray

Miracle Mile (1989) Trailer

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Attack Of The 50ft Icons

Attack Of The 50ft Icons

By Caroline Rennox

 The success of the sci-fi B-movies of the 50’s and 60’s often went hand in hand with how well they could sell whatever new gimmick or special effect had got them greenlit in the first place. Churned out at a rapid pace to sate audiences hungry for novelty, they haven’t always aged well but for every iguana with a fin glued on the back, there are some films and some monsters which will remain iconic. Modern audiences are harder and harder to impress with computer generated special effects that seem to have removed the limits of what we can show on the big screen, but there is one thing that seems to endure- the spectacle of scale. From our earliest stories of giants and titans to modern B-movies like new Stath-stravaganza The Meg, humanity has relentless appetite for the uncommonly big.

 There’s plenty of examples of movies where the extremes of scale are the main attraction. Films like The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), Fantastic Voyage (1966) and Honey I Shrunk the Kids (1989) all show us the wonder and terror of the everyday world when it’s distorted in size. These are movies about finding the fantastic in the mundane, where normal rules are suspended and quick-thinking and bravery are all that stands between you and death by giant ant. For movies about the macro side of the scale, we tend to see less focus on the world but on individuals made monstrous by their size. They’re more often about giant animals or genuine monsters, like King Kong or the numerous behemoths that populate kaiju movies. When it’s our fellow man that’s the star attraction there’s more room to play around with our various tropes regarding giants. Is our giant a terrifying, unstoppable brute or a clumsy, ungainly simpleton? Moreover, it gives a chance to provide the giant with a little more depth and allow the audience to step into their enormous shoes.

 One of the first and biggest successes of the genre was 1957’s The Amazing Colossal Man. Directed by Bert Gordon, who became known as ‘Mister BIG’ for his association with these macro-monster movies, the film’s effects were an achieved using rear projection, where scenes are filmed with the actors standing in front of a screen in which previously filmed footage is playing. It’s a technique that can have variable success- the ghost-like appearance of the titular Colossal Man is a common problem.

 The movie milks its giant gimmick for all the freakshow fascination that it possibly can- marvel as the giant drinks from a barrel as if a dainty mug! Recoil as he tears apart the icons of the Las Vegas skyline! Beneath all the spectacle, however, is a rather slow and sombre tragedy with a great deal of pity for its man made monster. The story centres around Lt. Glenn Manning who is exposed to radiation during testing of a plutonium bomb (he would’ve been absolutely fine if he’d just stayed in that shallow trench with the other soldiers!). The radiation causes his growth via some biological technobabble and Manning is increasingly tormented by new freakish body. There are signs though that his torment isn’t only caused by his new monstrousness, he’s shown dreaming vivid flashbacks to the war- watching friends die and killing the enemy in blind terror. Manning’s horror at being thought a freak of nature is linked directly to his trauma and fear of what the war has made him. It’s that same fear that led him to leap out of the trench into certain death if it mean being able to save the pilot who’d blundered into range of their atomic test.

 Despite his devoted fiancĂ© Carol sticking by and supporting him throughout, Manning begins to lose his mind and goes on the rampage through Nevada. He’s completely disconnected from the tiny world around him, confused and angered by the people fleeing from his path. Finally, unable to tell friend from foe and beyond saving, Manning is cornered by the military and plunges to a certain death in the Boulder Dam.

 Of course, that certain death wasn’t enough to stop the inevitable sequel that the movie’s success demanded, and a disfigured Manning appeared again in War of the Colossal Beast where he finally met his end via high voltage power line- a death that would become a staple of the subsequent giant monster movies. Gordon went on further to shoehorn his trademark into the the 60’s teen movie cult classic Village of the Giants where a group of partying teenagers grow big and trash a town after ingesting a mysterious goo.

 Perhaps more well remembered than the Colossal Man is the 1958 movie that cashed in on his success- Attack of the 50ft Woman. Featuring the added novelty of a female protagonist, the 50ft Woman is a genuinely iconic character. In fact, my childhood love of these movies was re-ignited after I saw our local Fopp selling a t-shirt with the fantastic poster for the movie- the one where the bikini clad giant straddles a highway picking up cars in an exciting scene that in no way happens in the film.

 It was an odd film to go back and re-watch. Female power fantasies of the big and burly type aren’t often seen in cinema and I’m sure my childhood self was mainly enamored with the idea of being a massive lady who could smash things. In truth, we only see the our leading lady in her full 50ft fury in the last few minutes of the film and it feels a poor revenge for what she goes through in the preceding hour.

 Our heroine is no tragic war hero this time- Nancy Archer is a wealthy heiress with a history of mental illness and alcoholism. Manning’s faithful and true fiance is replaced by a philandering husband, whose cheating is done in plain sight of everyone in town and who starts plotting his wife’s murder as soon as he might be able to get away with it. Nancy seems to be seen as a laughingstock by the whole town, who are more than happy to write off the alien encounter that seals her fate as a booze fuelled delusion. Even the 50ft Nancy gets patronised by her doctors, sedated and tied to the bed by men who believe that “When woman reach the age of maturity, Mother Nature sometimes overworks the frustration to the point of irrationalism”.

 Nancy Archer spends Attack of the 50ft Woman patronised, cheated on and humiliated. Her enormous growth turns her into the public freakshow that Manning was terrified of becoming and her final revenge lasts mere seconds before she’s sent into electrified oblivion.

 I suppose you could say that Nancy’s true revenge has been in her staying power as a monster movie icon- she’s shown up in all but name in many forms since her 1958 debut, from cartoons to music videos. The giant woman can be an icon for female power and wrath but more often than not she’s also a source of titillation. Notorious schlock icon Roger Corman even got on the act producing 1995’s Attack of the 60ft Centrefold - which is exactly as classy as it sounds - and 2012’s Attack of the 50ft Cheerleader - which features a much Youtube’d scene in which the expanding breasts of our heroine pop out of her shirt.

 A possible antidote to all of this comes in the form of Christopher Guest’s 1993 HBO remake of the original Attack of the 50ft Woman. The film is a lot funnier than the original and has a lot more compassion for its leading lady, played this time by Daryl Hannah. Hannah’s performance deftly retains the movie’s tongue-in-cheek tone whilst anchoring it with her transformation from sweet, downtrodden victim to a woman whose new-found size leads her to rediscovering her confidence and finally becoming the woman she always was inside. Even Harry’s mistress, Cristi Conaway’s Honey Parker, gets a little more depth than her 1958 version- yes, she’s still a jealous would-be murderer but at least this time she’s motivated by a lust for the power denied to her by the men in this one-horse town, and not a desire for shiny trinkets.

 The 1993 version of Harry, however, manages to be even more awful than original, not least because of a truly sleazy performance from Daniel Baldwin. This Harry is actively trying to harm Nancy, not just thoughtlessly hurting her with his adultery and indifference to her suffering. In a thematically relevant twist, it turns out he is competing with her own father to keep her mentally off balance and under the thumb. When the newly enormous Nancy suggests that her new situation might lead revitalise their relationship he mocks her relentlessly until the stress caused by her anger causes her weak heart to give out. Thinking she’s dead, the scumbag gleefully runs off to start his new life with Nancy.

 It’s in the last act of the movie that this version finally manages to give this 50ft woman the triumph she deserves. We get some great shots of Nancy stomping through town and fighting off military attack choppers but this Nancy isn’t out for revenge. Her newly discovered realisation that it’s the men in her life who need to change has given her compassion for the unenlightened. She even lets Honey go, urging her to reform- “Don't be stupid your whole damn life. You're better than they are, you're smarter than they are, and you know more than you think.”

 Eventually, succumbing to the overwhelming firepower sent against her, Nancy collapses into the town’s surrounding power lines as per the giant movie monster tradition. But this time she escapes death, beamed into space by the same aliens who started her on this new path, with Harry firmly grasped in her hand.

 The final scenes wryly drive home the movie’s feminist themes. Harry is now trapped on the spaceship in a small room with three other kidnapped men. At the mercy of their enormous female captors, these men are trapped in an endless group therapy session until they can work through the toxic ideas at the heart of their version of manhood. Hilariously, for these men, traditional masculinity is a literal prison. As Nancy tells him “It’s a whole new universe Harry, and it’s up to you to catch up with us”.

 Monster movies have long entertained and frightened audiences but they’ve also allowed us to explore some of the fears that lurk at the heart of our society, throwing up a funhouse mirror reflection of what we are and what we might become. They can be revenge fantasies and symbols of power for the powerless. They can offer up a plea of understanding for the unknown. The giants of the movies I’ve talked about here are terrifying to the people confronted by them but also driven by their own terror. The tragic ends of these monsters suggest only one solution when you find your compassion waning in the face of fear - think big.

The Amazing Colossal Man Is Available Now On DVD 

*It may or may not also be available to view for free on youtube*

Attack Of The 50ft Woman Is Available To Rent Or Buy Now From Amazon Digital

The Amazing Colossal Man Trailer (1957)

Attack Of The 50ft Woman Trailer (1958)

Monday, August 6, 2018

Review: Branded To Kill (1963)

Branded to Kill (1963)

By Caroline Rennox
“Drink and women can be the death of a killer”

 Siejun Suzuki’s Branded to Kill comes with a lot of baggage - it is, after all, the film that got Suzuki fired for turning in something ‘incomprehensible’ and, worse, unprofitable to studio NIkkatsu’s director Kyusaki Hori. A long term and highly prolific director of studio Nikkatsu’s relentless b-movie production line, Suzuki had honed his talent for combining visually arresting, inventive filmmaking with the thrill of pure entertainment, but Branded’s willful disregard for the conventions of straightforward action cinema were too much of a gamble for a studio trying to weather massive changes in the industry.
 For an ‘incomprehensible’ film, Branded to Kill really has, at its core, a pretty straightforward plot - No.3 ranked contract killer Hanada falls in love with a strange woman, fails to complete an assigned kill, is betrayed by his wife and then relentlessly pursued by the mysterious No.1 killer. The plot, however, is almost of no consequence in a film which is so committed to providing its audience with such a strange, dreamlike experience. Suzuki’s film deliberately disrupts its own plot with unexplained jumps in time and location, which leave the viewer feeling as dislocated as Hanada himself. There are hints throughout that our No.3 killer isn’t quite the pro that his ranking would seem to suggest - as he continually drinks from his ever-present hip-flask and bottles of booze appear from nowhere, the film gains the feeling of a blearily recalled night of drunkenness. As we are dislocated in time and space by the film, Hanada struggles with making sense of his own reality.
 Despite lacking the distinctive use of colour seen in many of Suzuki’s other films, Branded had plenty to savour visually. We frequently view characters through pouring rain or otherwise obscured, sometimes gradually coming into focus from hazy shots that introduce an uncertainty in what we are really seeing. In one striking sequence, Hanada flees from his morbid lover Misako, his distress at being unable to kill her is amplified by a screen that is invaded by patterns of the same dead birds and butterflies that fill her apartment.

 If this all sounds a bit arty and po-faced, then it’s worth mentioning that the film is also wildly entertaining and blackly comic. According to leading man Joe Shishida, Suzuki’s artful direction extended to basing some wildly improbable looking sex scenes on artwork by Degas and jokingly gives his super serious hitman an erotic addiction to sniffing boiled rice. Hanada’s execution of his three diamond-smuggling targets are also rather cheerfully bizarre - from a hot air balloon getaway, to one target being shot through a sink drain from several floors below. These convoluted executions almost seem to be mocking the very idea of the highly skilled super-assassin, especially in a world in which hitmen appear to compete for a place in an arbitrary top ten ranking system.
 The final sequence of the film sees Hanada betrayed by his adulterous wife, certain that his lover is dead and pursued by the mysterious No.1 killer in an extended sequence of sweaty, drunken paranoia. No.1’s methods are appropriately bizarre as he eventually shows up at Hanada’s flat, insisting that they now must sleep, eat and piss together, with guns kept tantalisingly close on the table. After disappearing once again, challenging Hanada to meet him face on at an empty gymnasium, No.1 taunts him remotely with a gloating message about his imminent victory - ‘you’re tired, your nervous, you feel your destiny closing in on you… ‘. Perhaps this is the destiny of all killers, to die afraid and alone, surrounded by other predators?
 It’s impossible to cover everything that makes Branded to Kill such a unique and wonderful cinematic experience in one review and the film itself is one that yields new treasures on repeated viewing. It’s a film best enjoyed by giving in to the fever dream atmosphere and enjoying Suzuki’s endless attempts to entertain and delight his audience. With Arrow Video having created a beautifully packaged remaster of the film, there’s no reason not to seek out this true cinematic treasure.

Branded To Kill Is Available Now On Arrow Video Blu-Ray

Branded To Kill (1963) Trailer