Jubilee (1978)

Journeying down the rabbit hole of avant-garde cinema can be as rewarding as it is confusing. Rewarding in the sense that you get to see all sorts of weirdness unfold on screen, and confusing in the sense that there’s no guarantee that you’ll have any grasp on what’s going on. That’s the bizarre state of Derek Jarman’s Jubilee, a punk-themed art film that lurches from meaninglessness to meaning at no consistent rate.

What is it about? I’m amazed I even know at this point! But seriously, the film starts off with a scene with Queen Elizabeth I and a man named John Dee, who are transported by an angel named Ariel into a desolate Britain where there is apparently no law, no work, no point to living. In that vision of the future, there live a group of nihilistic punks who live by their own interpretation of history, morality, and desire, and sometimes murder people for no given reason.

It’s worth noting that throughout the whole film, the queen has barely any interaction with the world or its characters. That would have given the film some structure, and apparently that’s not what Mr. Jarman had intended. The film’s story, if it has one, is essentially 100 minutes of pure, empty anarchy. There’s no real thread that binds the scenes together, and that’s a terrible shame because it seems as if there could have been a good story. The film itself explores many themes, but its central theme is abject chaos, and I think that this could have been explored in a much better way than it had been. That said, one might be able to argue that the film itself is an accurate representation of the kind of chaos it intended to show.

Equally insane is the film’s cast of characters. When they’re not shouting curse-laden rants about whatever they feel like at the time, they’re having sex and murdering people for no real reason. The acting isn’t terribly bad. In fact, the actors play their parts well enough that they can convince you of the characters’ insanity. To a certain extent, I liked the way the characters were portrayed because they were raw personalities, but they were hampered by their aimlessness in the plot. Amyl Nitrate was perhaps my favourite character because I think she had the most potential, and despite having a decent performer playing her, even she suffers from the same problem.

There are some positives though. For one, the film captures the punk style quite accurately, even though it misrepresents the punk scene generally. On another note, the film doesn’t really represent punk at all, but rather should be taken as a metaphor for the pessimism of the time in which it was made. If the film accomplishes anything, it’s that it unfailingly depicts the logical conclusion of what a nihilistic outlook on life can possibly lead to, at least without any sort of intervention. Perhaps that’s about all the sense I can make out of a film like this. It’s not really bad at all, but despite some delightfully quirky moments, it makes so little sense that it may only appeal to the nerdiest film enthusiasts, or film studies students.

  • Score: 62%
  • Grade: C

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

original_rocky_horror_picture_show_posterIn a way, The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a good example of a cult film that garnered mainstream appeal. Largely dismissed when it was first released (because let’s face it, mainstream film critics were always morons), it quickly became a huge enough hit that people would dress up as the characters (ladies and gentlemen, the birth of cosplay as we know it), and now every year the film is shown close to Halloween, which I guess is why I’ve picked this film. I saw a more recent performance of the play this film was based on (specifically the 40th Anniversary broadcast on Sky Arts), and at that point I didn’t see the film yet, and then wanted to see it more than ever, and when I finally did see it, I liked it, even though I wasn’t entirely surprised by how unapologetically campy it is.

The film’s plot is essentially a silver screen re-enactment of the musical, narrated by a criminologist. The story sees a couple – Brad Majors and Janet Weiss – who find themselves lost in the woods one rainy evening, and stumble on a nearby manor, wherein they assume they can find a phone they can use to call for help. Discovering a cavalcade of strange people with bizarre costumes, they are greeted by Dr. Frank N. Furter, a crazy scientist who, by his own admission, is an alien transvestite from a faraway planet, and apparently he is creating a superhuman beef cake that he wants to have sex with, while simultaneously seducing both Brad and Janet, who find themselves caught in a series of bizarre, goofy horrors set to upbeat music.

The story is in equal parts a B-movie parody and a glam rock opera, and it moves at a rather frenetic, yet enjoyably upbeat pace. It’s mainly the musical numbers that move the plot forward (this literally being an on-screen translation of the original musical), and it’s a pretty effective way to bring attention to the plot, and advantage that Rocky Horror has over the plethora of cheesy sci-fi and horror movies the filmmakers lovingly satirise.

The acting is one area where your mileage may vary, mainly because the acting is very campy. If you hate musicals you might not like it, but it seems to me that the actors perform better when they’re singing rather than simply speaking. I’m probably not the only one who’ll say that Tim Curry is the best performer in the film. I prefer his character to all the others, mainly because of his outlandish and deliciously devious performance. I’m also of the opinion that Tim Curry was the best possible choice for the role of Dr. Frank N. Furter. I’ve seen the trailer for the TV reboot (which looks pretty bad), and I’m sure Laverne Cox isn’t a bad choice, but let’s face it, there’s no beating Tim Curry.

Stylistically, the film has all the ingredients of a film that serves as both a parody and a loving tribute to the Hammer Horror films of the 1950’s and 1960’s. In fact, a number of props and set pieces, including the Oakley Estate (which was used as the setting for The Frankenstein Place), a frequent filming location in older Hammer films. Many of the costumes instantly remind me of the often equally outlandish glam rock scene of the time, but some of the other elements, including dyed hair and ripped fishnets, remind me of the punk movement (where they found a home after the film was released). Of course, I can’t go without mentioning the actual songs, and the songs are actually quite good, though a select few are truly memorable (nobody who’s seen the film can actually forget “The Time Warp”, “Dammit Janet”, or “Sweet Transvestite”).

It’s probably not for everyone, but if you want a wild, unapologetically fun film, then The Rocky Horror Picture Show is certainly for you. It looks, feels and sounds very much like a film of its time, but amazingly enough, its bold, unabashed appeal still holds up today.

  • Score: 75%
  • Grade: B

Westworld (1973)

westworld_ver2With the arrival of the Westworld TV series, I came across the original film, the quintessentially 70’s sci-fi gem that inspired it. I must lament the proclivity of our times for flashy, big budget reboots. After all, the Westworld TV series has barely even started, and the mainstream press treats it like the best thing since sliced bread, all while barely any credit is given where it’s due, which is such a shame because this film was one of the most innovative films in sci-fi before the genre give way to big budget braggadocio.

The premise is familiar, but nonetheless a curious one. The film is set in an adult-oriented luxury amusement park named Delos, known for its hyper-realistic simulation of themed environments – Roman World, Medieval World, and of course Westworld. Each world is populated by androids that bear an uncanny resemblance to humans, and are programmed to cater to the whims of Delos patrons. However, a computer virus begins to spread throughout the system, and the robots begin acting against their programming, and some even start killing patrons. All the while, two patrons find themselves being stalked by a robotic gunslinger (unofficially the film’s mascot).

At first the story seemed vapid and sluggish in pace, perhaps an apt representation of a Delos patron wallowing in a fantasy that comprises principally of chasing animatronic prostitutes aimlessly. Of course, this is just building suspense up to the point when things start going wrong in the park. Among a number of themes, the story addresses the kind of comfort humans have gotten used to thanks to advances in technology, and how that dependence will eventually come back to haunt them. That’s the most obvious theme, but also the most prevalent in Westworld, whose slowly paced yet multi-faceted plot seem to allow for the blending of elements from Western, sci-fi and thriller films.

The acting and characters aren’t necessarily the best part, but in a way the two patrons serving as the film’s two main protagonists illustrate the vapidity of instant leisure. One of them, played by James Brolin, seems chiefly concerned with satiating his own lusts, to the point where he would rather stay in a hotel than partake in a simulated gunfight, which I would argue would be more fun. The other one, played by Richard Benjamin, doesn’t seem at all fazed by the sex, and is more interested in the more hands-on pleasures that hyper-realistic simulation has to offer. The character stealing the show, of course, is Yul Brynner’s gunslinger, based on Brynner’s character in The Magnificent Seven. You first see him in much the same way as a typical Western gunslinger, but as the virus spreads, the gunslinger’s true nature as a cold, efficient mechanical assassin is revealed, and it becomes the driving force of the rest of the story. As the Terminator of the 1970’s, Brynner’s performance was brilliant, and he barely even talked.

For its time, Westworld looked impressive, and in terms of atmosphere, it had the feel of a classically chilled 70’s sci-fi film Alongside the old-fashioned practical effects, the film also made use of digital image processing, where the gunslinger’s point of view is represented as a pixellated world, and this adds to the cold atmosphere that Westworld conveys. A lot of older sci-fi films from the early 70’s might seem cheesy today, but not Westworld, with its uncanny realism and chilling pace. The TV series may yet take the original concept to places it hadn’t been before, but it will never replace the original classic. No reboot can or ever will.

  • Score: 85%
  • Grade: A

The Devils (1971)

THE DEVILS - American Poster 1When I first heard of the film, I somehow thought it was going to be one of those Satanic horror films, but after reading into it I found myself more interested, and then I actually got the chance to see it. If you came in thinking this was a horror film, you’ve probably come to the wrong film, but it’s an even better film than I thought it would be. Dismissed by some as “distasteful” and “offensive” in its time (to the point that it was actually banned in 17 local authorities in Britain), the film is now regarded as one of Ken Russell’s best films (behind Women in Love, which I have yet to see myself), and I’d say that reputation is well-deserved.

Set in 1634, this is essentially a historical film that tells the story of Urbain Grandier, a Catholic well-regarded priest who is apparently known for ignoring his vow of celibacy. However, he is the object of the obsessions of Sister Jeanne des Agnes, a neurotic abbess who suffers from severe scoliosis. Her jealousy winds up driving her insane, and when inadvertently accuses Grandier of withcraft, she invites the zealous intervention of opportunistic church and government officials, eventually bringing about the demise of the man she was so obsessed with.

At first, the story didn’t seem to go anywhere, but then as it unfolds, the true madness of the film unravels, and it made for a captivating tale of fanaticism, and the sweeping paranoia of the age it was set in. I find that this film is also a very effective demonstration of how paranoia can be exploited by those who want to advance their agendas of power. All the while, it also plays out a tale of frustrated desires, as demonstrated by Sister Jeanne and her convent’s descent into madness, and their apparent cooperation with a clearly perverted “witch hunter”.

The performances are what carry the film with great talent. Oliver Reed gives a somewhat villainous yet incredibly charismatic performance as Urbain Grandier. He has the strange ability to seem both sinister and honourable at the same time, but Reed’s hour of power is saved for the last moments of the film, as he stands up against the people judging him even if he knows there’s no hope for him. Vanessa Redgrave also gave a magnificent performance as the salaciously insane abbess, and the supporting cast all deserve a standing ovation for their performance.

The film also sports a peculiarly opulent visual style. Derek Jarman’s modernistic white-tiled city will undoubtedly seem like an odd choice for a film set in 17th century France, but I like the design choice. There’s also a number of props that stand out, like the wheel with a corpse chained to it, the archaic wheel mechanism used to chip at the wall in Loudun, and the opening dance scene. The film is as much a visual trip as it is a hysteric fiesta, though the music score, for the most part, is quite sombre. The music generally seems to blend into the background of the film itself.

In conclusion, I contend that The Devils is an artistic triumph, stretching the limits of what could be shown on film. Laden with symbolism and lurid expressions of zeal, the film is a brilliant expression of the extremes of belief, and how they feed into frenzied paranoia. I just wish that I could get my hands on the uncut version.

  • Score: 87%
  • Grade: A

Star Wars (1977)

StarWarsMoviePoster1977Before the immense merchandising juggernaut, before the nonsensical prequel trilogy, and before even the concept of blockbuster cinema, there was this refreshingly simple, yet explosively ambitious film that, back in its day, saw scores of people lining up around the block to see it. Though it certainly wasn’t the first blockbuster film, it may as well have raised the bar for the heights such films could achieve, and its mixture of sci-fi and heroic fantasy opened the door to new possibilities for both genres, and is only one of the special ingredients that made it an instant pop culture phenomenon. In every sense, this was a very visionary film, and that would only be a short description.

The film tells the now-familiar story of Luke Skywalker’s journey to assist the Rebel Alliance in its struggle against the Galactic Empire. It presents the classical conflict of good versus evil, echoing the time-honoured traditions of the heroic narrative, and yet presenting that in what was then a totally new context (with the Force being a new dynamic that makes it stand out). By now, pretty much everything about the story of Star Wars is so familiar that it’s almost like a folk tale that’s been passed down for centuries. That’s the power of Star Wars. Even if you hadn’t seen it, you’d know what the score was, and perhaps that’s partly because of its simple and very straightforward narrative. Put it simply, if you’re a student interested in studying narrative, I’d strongly recommend studying this film first.

Of course, I think the greatest part of the film is its characters – the classic cast of familiar characters. We all know them by now. Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Han Solo, Chewbacca, Darth Vader, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and all the rest. They all perform spectacularly, thanks to the well-selected cast of actors, which includes the magnificent James Earl Jones as the voice of Darth Vader, the late Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan, and the prolific voice actor Mark Hamill as Luke. These characters have given us some of the most memetic quotations in movie history, and I think we all know why. It’s because the characters were so utterly memorable and likeable, and we’ve familiarized ourselves with this first Star Wars film over and over again. Of course, it’s also down to the nature of the performances. The characters are serious, but that’s not to say that it’s always that way. In fact, there’s a lot of humour going on as well, even if much of that comes from the film’s instantly recognizable droids.

The film also displays superb visual clout, and I say this not just because of the fantastic special effects, but also because of the world George Lucas had created. The deserts of Tatooine alone look like fine art, especially during that iconic scene where Luke gazes at the setting suns. While I’m talking about atmosphere, the music for the film is a fantastic compliment to overall tone of the film, which I’d say is comparable to an epic fantasy film. The special effects really come into play when it’s time for action. There are lights and explosions abound in this action-packed space opera, which at times, plays out like a comic book on screen.

If there’s anything at all I might criticize about this film, it’s that it leaves a lot of unanswered questions, and that’s probably because George Lucas had more than one sequel in mind. Perhaps it was a good thing that the film didn’t explain everything, because in the end, the audience wanted more. If anything, the only other thing I could criticize is the fact that George Lucas kept editing the film. There’s a version of the film where Jabba the Hut was digitally inserted into the middle of the film, and it’s almost as though Lucas wasn’t happy with it. Then again, most of the people producing it thought it fail, and thankfully they were proven wrong. Whatever its very minor faults, Star Wars is and shall remain a masterpiece of cinema, and a reminder of why film is such a powerful art form.

  • Score: 95%
  • Grade: S

Mad Max (1979)

MadMazAusOut of all the Mad Max films, the first film immediately comes across as the odd one out. Whereas the other films play out as very stylized post-apocalyptic action films, this first film takes its cues from what was called the “new wave of Hollywood directors”, which were more subtle in their approach than what you might see today. In fact, the film’s director envisioned the film as something like a silent film, with the car-based action as an extension of the kinetic qualities of the kind of film he had in mind. Compared to its successors, the first Mad Max film is decidedly more experimental, resembling the modern equivalent of a Western film, only much darker and grittier. Indeed, the film tells a story of a good man who tries to cling on to sanity, but in the end is driven to the edge, and driven back into a job that he wanted to retire from.

The story is slowly paced, but I think that makes sense given the film’s direction. Unlike a lot of action films, this one gives us characters with actual depth, and I’m not just talking about Max himself. That being said, however, this is the only film in the series that gives any insight into what Max had to lose (specifically, his wife and child, who only appear in this film). Mel Gibson fits into the title role quite well, making for a convincing cop in a post-apocalyptic setting, and his character becomes all the more engaging as the film progresses, particularly towards the end. The villains are pretty much thugs, but they’re not totally brainless, otherwise they wouldn’t make for very good villains. The film emphasizes the madness of the villains in its script, but most of the credit should go to the actors portraying them. Their performances really bring out the grotty, deranged, violent characteristic that should come naturally in the context of the post-apocalyptic highway setting. In other words, they were nasty in a very believable way.

It’s worth mentioning that the film was produced on a budget of only around 400,000 Australian dollars, which was quite low even for its time. For something like that, the film is quite an eye-catching visual spectacle. The vehicular action scenes are choreographed quite well, and at the very least they’re more enjoyable to look at than a by-the-numbers car chase scene. Of course, violence is everywhere in this film, and Max delivers highly proficient justice to his enemies, with a particular highlight of the film being that one scene where Max handcuffs a man to his car and sets him alight. All in all, George Miller did very well in crafting a mad, violent world to life. It may not be as well-done as its successor (and it certainly doesn’t hold a candle to Mad Max: Fury Road), but even today, it’s a cut above a number of action films, and it continues to stand out brilliantly amongst the other films of its kind.

  • Score: 85%
  • Grade: A