Teeth (2007, dir. Michell Lichtenstein) review

In a modest house, lying in the shadow of two large smoke stacks, a young woman grows teeth in her vagina. Writer/director Michell Lichtenstein forges a fast, fun horror film with some bite, but struggles to add any penetrating insight to the issues it opens up. 

Dawn (Jess Weixler) belongs to a Christian group which preaches sexual abstinence before marriage at high school. Unknown to the world, she has a physiological condition called vagina dentata. Most days she is harassed and ridiculed by the pot-smoking pupils who fail to see the point in not having sex. Dawn’s new boyfriend also doubts his commitment to celibacy. 

Teeth never goes all the way and shows us the titular fangs, but we see the effects. Dawn’s troubled brother gets his finger sliced in the paddling pool when they’re children. It’s not long before someone loses some fingers and, if you don’t wish to see a severed penis, you may want to cross your legs and look away. 

Lichenstein constructs a situation which demands we see some promised toothy action, even though Dawn has vowed to remain chaste. Problematically, this requires Dawn to be violated for the film to get its way.

There aren’t many men in Dawn’s life who don’t have an unhealthy attitude to sex. An unethical gynaecologist seems perfectly happy to vigorously examine her without another woman present. Dawn’s brother noisily bangs his girlfriend while the family sit and listen. And at school, she befriends one boy, then another, who exploit her. Lichenstein mines some uncomfortable and blackly comic scenes from this.

Teeth juggles tension and humour, with mildly successful digs at Young Christians, corporate pollution and youth culture. It is solidly directed and very well played even when the story is running out of steam. It seems lazy writing to make Dawn so fervent about sex and sin when her own sexual organs are so demonic. But what sits most uncomfortably is when Dawn allows herself to have sex with someone she doesn’t want to in order to deliver a forced emasculation. The place that Dawn finds herself by the end of the film seems a betrayal of the character.

The local power-plant and it’s smoke-stacks sit proudly in every exterior shot of the house, belching out greasy, black smoke, as though to suggest a cause for events. In truth, the cause is more prosaic. Someone wanted to make a film about a toothed vagina and, while not without some bloody pleasures and slippery horror, failed to make it all quite hang together.


Attack on Titan (進撃の巨人 Shingeki no Kyojin) television review

Attack on Titan is an animated television series adapted from a popular Japanese comic. It’s a thoroughly unhealthy mash-up of Game of Thrones, Full Metal Jacket, Night of the Living Dead, Spiderman and Jack and the Beanstalk. It has a terrifying disregard for the lives of its characters. It features unexpected twists, death, destruction and dizzyingly choreographed action sequences. And it has one of the catchiest, most bombastic, title sequences you’ll ever see.

In a land of castles and feudalism, all citizens live within a heavily walled city. The thick wall keeps out the ‘Titans’, 15 metre, naked, sexless, gormless freaks who live to chase and eat humans. The majority of the Titans have a European/American appearance. It’s not hard to see Attack on Titan as a metaphor for “bland” Western culture invading Japan.

One sunny day, a new titan appears. At 100 metres, he stands higher than the wall. When he rudely breaches it, the city finds it’s streets overrun with mindless titans, scooping up and devouring the population.

The military’s response to the apocalypse is to rally an army of swordsmen equipped with “3D Maneuver Gear”. They have the ability to fire cables which spear nearby buildings, allowing them to swing up high enough to deliver a killing blow to the Titan’s neck. It sounds fun, looks impressive, but felling a Titan is difficult. Many soldiers die in the process, every fight infused with grim urgency.

Twists and revelations soon pile-up, changing the war entirely. Despite an eventful story and crazy ideas, viewers will find their pleasure curtailed by pacing issues. While some of the story zips along, on a dime it will turn a corner into lengthy internal monologue, killing the tension. The animation veers between highly detailed energy and simple static images. These mark the points that the production team found their time and budget stretched. At its best, the imagination on display is frightening and beautiful.

Character design is strong, with Eren Yaeger, Mikasa Ackerman and Levi particularly worth looking out for. In fact Eren and Mikasa (the main characters) have a back-story so complex and compelling, there’s enough material for several spin-offs. It’s their recruitment into the corps which initially drives the story, but a large supporting cast features several brilliant personalities who zing off the screen.

Attack on Titan is a surprising, nail-biting and only occasionally frustrating show. It skews the well-trodden zombie format into something on a far grander scale. It ratchets up the melodrama to equally dizzying heights and represents a high point for serial television animation.


House of Whipcord review (1974, dir. Pete Walker)

Sounds like a bit of cheeky, kinky titillation, doesn't it? A film about modern, fun-loving, women who are rounded up, sent to a correctional facility and then whipped for being ever-so naughty.

House of Whipcord isn’t even a bit fun or carefree, though. Rather than finding themselves in a grand, camp, gothic dungeon, our heroines are interned in a bare, cold institution on a rainy moor. They are stripped of clothes and jewellery, force to wear a sackcloth and forbidden to talk by the impressively dour women who watch over all.

The governess and wardens are living their dream. And their dream is of an England when the penalty for waywardness was swift and severe. Girls committing insurrection find themselves on the end of the lash. The damage inflicted is ugly and shocking. If the girl still refuses to mend her ways then she finds herself sentenced to death by hanging. A cruel and unjust affair which tips the mood of the film into a very dark and claustrophobic place.

The girls are sentenced by one of only two men to be found in this matriarchy. A doddering old judge guided by the venomous whispers of the chief matron. Then there is the matron’s son, Mark E. Desade (I know! You don't need me explain it, you're clever enough). He goes to parties, finds progressive, liberated young ladies and seduces them with his cold, handsome, charms. Shortly after they find themselves in the House of Whipcord.

Plenty of ‘women in prison’ film tropes of are here, but realised in brutal ways. A humiliating stripping, an evil lesbian warden and a precarious escape. Pete Walker is fascinating exploitation director with no agenda other than to "create a bit of mischief", as he puts it. Here he directs with confidence, inky black humour, chilling detachment and little flair. 

The performances range from weak to hammy but are always fascinating and eccentric. The dark interiors and cloudy exteriors offer little in the way of hope or light and the film paints a terrifying picture of what the world would look like if rabid conservatives got their way with the penal system.

House of Whipcord is a cautionary tale of the older generation’s fear of young, successful, sexually-free women and the rampant misogyny and hypocrisy which will follow.


Aguirre, Wrath of God (restored version) review

You step off the dilapidated coach, warm trade-winds kicking at the fedora you haggled for at the village market, and into your “resplendent” holiday villa-complex. Then you discover the brochure hadn’t been entirely truthful. You were promised El Dorado, the Mysterious City of Gold, and instead you got El Dorado, the feeble and short-lived BBC soap-opera. What you thought was a weather-beaten sign pointing a road to a quaint, abandoned pueblo turned out to be a village of sadistic, godless cannibals.

Welcome to the jungle! Or, more accurately, the land around Machu Picchu, where Aguirre, Wrath of God was shot on stolen cameras and a wing and a prayer. Director Werner Herzog corralled a cast and crew of 450 people to make a terrifying trip down eroded Inca steps, the film’s opening shot. Fighting vertigo and extreme rain, the filmmakers managed to transport people, animals and equipment into a hostile rainforest to film a sloppy, uneven cinematic classic.

Based on the little knowledge Herzog had of real-life adventurer Lope de Aguirre, the film traces the journey of a band of Spanish conquistadors travelling down the Amazon in search of the fabled riches of El Dorado. While searching, their infighting and ill-preparedness threatens to undo all of them.

Something is awry in Aguirre. The pacing of is erratic, the performances uneven and the characterisation inconsistent. Yet it is a unique and compelling film. The brooding hulk of Klaus Kinski gives us an arresting and unpredictable soul who stubbornly believes he is right when all falls to pieces around him. Everyone, even Kinski, play second fiddle to the land that hates them so. It is primordial and awesomely beautiful and the camera lingers long enough to make you love and fear it in equal measure.

Its hard to work out if some of the actors have been told to act bored and unhappy or whether they really just don’t want to be miles from anywhere with a film crew and a metric ton of tropical diseases. Either way Aguirre is a awash with disinterested faces and muddled motives. The film fails to give us a cohesive narrative, thanks to Herzog’s insistence on turning up in the jungle and constructing a film on the fly. Look again though and you realise it doesn’t matter. Aguirre is a glorious mess, a fascinating, filthy jumble of thwarted ambition, angry nature and godless devils who strike indiscriminately from the trees. Its not just the local “savages” who threaten the “good’ Christians looking for El Dorado either. The making of the film is just as tumultuous, with Kinski turning up ready for a full jungle experience then demanding a hotel away from everyone else when faced with insects, humidity and rain. In his time on set he raged and sulked and demanded that crew be fired for looking at him wrong. Herzog even threatened to put a bullet in his head when Kinski was prepared to leave the film on a boat. After that he was a more subdued presence on set.

Aguirre is by not an easy film to watch. It gives us extras who stare at the camera, scenes that go on too long, and then on further to nowhere. Kinski seems to be in a different film to the other actors, such is the gap between his performance and thiers. Herzog throws incongruous moments of slapstick comedy into the mix too. The bizarre lasts words of a speared man or the horse that stares inscrutably back at the disintegrating raft it has just been pushed off. Its hard not to marvel at the hubris of the greedy conquistadors facing deadly currents and mounting insanity. Aguirre is a beautiful, repellent masterpiece and proof that Herzog is a director of boldness and ambition.

Aguirre, Wrath of God has been restored and opens a season of Werner Herzog’s films at the BFI in London on 7th June


'Uncut!' A BFI Season of Banned and Censored Films - preview


It's a curious facet of the human psychological condition that we actively seek to do what we're told explicitly not to. As either a child or adult we're all familiar with exchange's such as this:

"DO NOT touch that!"
"Why not, mum?"
"Because you'll get hurt. And because I said so!"
"But it's just a rock?"
"Yes, but it's covered in excrement, broken glass, venomous-spiders and diseases."
"Hmm... OK, mum"

then later:

"Look at you! You touched the rock didn't you?!"
[sheepishly] "Yes!"

And now, as a an intelligent, free-thinking adult, you can experience exactly what the British Board of Film Classification has told you not to touch! The BBFC is 100 years old this year and the British Film Institute is scrutinizing the scrutinizers.

You’ve witnessed enough bland, anodyne cinema in your life and now you hanker after something else. You want to be challenged, you want to be shocked and you want to be titillated in weird, new ways. And why wouldn't you? Quite frankly you'd like to push some boundaries and have some fun. 

The BFi has heard your cries and programmed a season of films just for you. And to top it off they are hosting a debate on the role of the BBFC as Britain's chief censors and arbiters of what is permissible. All of the films have been banned or partially censored within the last century and all of them are, for whatever reason, viewable now with most of those offending elements reinstated. Times have moved on and while you can argue that the acceptance of sex, violence and unusualness on show here demonstrates a slide into moral vacuity, you could equally contest that it shows that we are all more accepting of challenging material. Yes there is plenty which is, quite rightly, taboo but there are also some things that should not have been banned at all and, in the cold light of day, pose no threat to modern society.

Here's a short preview of some of the delights on offer:

Crash (1996, dir. David Cronenberg)
Famously banned by Westminster council on the grounds that the film was "bordering on obscenity", "liable to lead to copycat action" and guilty of depicting women in a "sexually humiliating way", Crash now looks remarkably restrained and quite un-erotic today. It remains an excellent study of sexual fetish and a mind unable to find the satisfaction it craves despite pushing itself further towards destruction. It features strong performances and just the right level of icily detached direction.

The Evil Dead (1982, dir. Sam Raimi)
The vertiginous, funny, roller-coaster-speed spills and thrills of Raimi's horror classic were only relatively recently available uncut in the UK. Originally The Evil Dead received an 'X' certificate with numerous excisions. Once again, on a recent viewing of this seminal work, it is easy to see why it might have offended but most of the gore and horror is undercut by a keen and vicious streak of black humour. 

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984, dir. Steven Spielberg)
The "not as awesome of powerful as Raiders, but still watchable" action/adventure prequel suffered at the scissor-like hands of editors when the BBFC requested the removal of a scene in order to secure a more universal PG rating. It was the removal of a man's heart through his rib-cage by the particularly strong hand of the film's villain which proved problematic. Recent releases have seen the scene restored.

This is England (2006, dir. Shane Meadows)
On release, This is England earned itself an 18 certificate from the BBFC for racist language and violence. Director Meadows insisted that 15 would have been a fairer limit for it, allowing it to be seen by a secondary school audience who would have empathised with the issues presented. This Is England also serves as a valuable history lesson as well as cautionary tale. To think that the film condones racism in any way would be missing the point by a considerable margin. Yes, the naturalistic performances and stark beauty of the film intensify the emotions and impact but I can only think that a 15 year old would have benefitted from seeing the effects of racism on "real" people and communities.

The next 2 films are released on BFI DVD on November 5th 2012

Sick: The Life & Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist (1997, dir. Kirby Dick)
A tough documentary to stomach for two reasons. The first is for the graphic depictions of the pain that Bob inflicts on himself: Needles, hammers and nails are used to derive sexual gratification. The second reason for uneasy viewing, is the realisation that Bob is trying to control the pain he feels from the cystic-fibrosis which is slowly killing him. Bob's humanity and intelligence shine through even as his wife dominates and sexually tortures him to the bitter end. 

Maîtresse (1975, dir. Barbet Schroeder)
Receiving a ban on initial release in the UK for it's graphic scenes of bondage and sado-masochism, Maîtresse still has the power to induce winces when the pain-giving starts. The love story between Gerard Depardieu's thief and the dominatrix (Bulle Ogier), whose house he invades, is convincing and complex. It looks great too, and the fetish fashions on display give it a curiously modern feel too.

Here's a full list of what's on in the season. Why not book yourself a ticket to something they never wanted you to see!


Flying Swords of Dragon Gate (Long men fei jia) review (2011, dir Hark Tsui)

I'm no fan of the 3D film. Something about having my eyes covered in any way while engaged with a medium that is at least 50% visual doesn't sit well. Then there is the fact that film is three-dimensional already (time is a dimension) so the name is incorrect. And lets not forget what 3D is: It's not 3D. It's several layers of flat planes which 'appear' to be differing distances in relation to the viewer. All that clever compositing effects work by the film-makers is undone by the fact that your attention is drawn right back to the fact that 'dinosaur-A' really isn't part of 'landscape-B' and the whole thing is a figment of some computer's central processor.

Having made that point I'm going to recommend you see a martial-arts epic in the wuxia tradition called Flying Swords of Dragon Gate. In 3D.

From a bravura, vertiginous, fly-through the masts and rigging of a ship-yard to an epic, and quite brilliant, fight to the death within a whirling sandstorm, the 3D process is here given a vigorous workout. FSODG is not an intelligent film, but any ounce of brain-power it had was spent solely on figuring exciting ways to use 3D to bombard the viewer with arrows, spears, fists, head and beauty.

The plot side of things goes something like this: various factions in a strife-riven China take refuge in an inn built not far from "The Dragon Gate". Viscous agents of the East and West Bureaus, brave knights who spend their life on the road, tattooed barbarians, sell-swords and flesh-eating inn-keepers all converge as the sand-storm of a lifetime engulfs them. With the revelation that the city buried under the Dragon Gate will at last be revealed by the shifting sands and disgorge its bounty of gold for the victors, the story is given some urgency.

There are subplots of love lost, mistaken identity, Machiavellian intrigue and sexual politics, but none are developed with any of the rigidity they deserve to be. Plot points come and go, sometimes serving only to provide an occasional titter, but more often than not to segue into an extravagantly choreographed fight. Provided you are happy with unclear motivations, unlikely twists and unstable characterisation you won't find anything to trouble you here.

Star power is provided by Jet Li, on enthusiastic form, and acclaimed director Hark Tsui. All of the cast are fun to watch though, especially Xun Zhou as a lady knight and Kun Chen as both a supremely nasty leader and in a parallel role as a bumbling servant. Also worthy of mention are the powerful and fun special effects, wrangled by the effects team who worked on Avatar. The aforementioned flying battle in the heart of a whirlwind of sand is a particularly exciting moment, a sort of violent Wizard of Oz dream sequence, which thrills and surprises in equal measure. All staple wuxia elements are here, from floating heroes, knights duty bound to help the weak and the pitting of lower classes against an evil and rich elite.

FSODG is a great, nonsensical fun. A rip-roaring flight of fantasy that plays fast and loose with physics, history and logic, and never fails to deliver on its promise of spectacle, action and adventure. And as a showcase for 3D it fulfills its purpose by throwing everything at the screen, including a rather ornate, gold kitchen sink. A prefect metaphor for the fact that stereoscopy can't help your story but only provide the shallow thrills that are its sole stock-in-trade.

FLYING SWORDS OF DRAGONS GATE is out in cinemas on 19th October and on 3D DVD and Blu-Ray on the 29thof October 2012.


The 10 Funniest Moments in Film: part 2

Part 1 here
6. "I'm terrified beyond capacity for rational thought" in Ghostbusters
Dr. Peter Venkman: Ray has gone bye-bye, Egon... what've you got left?
Dr. Egon Spengler: Sorry, Venkman, I'm terrified beyond the capacity for rational thought.

Why is this funny? You shouldn't analyse comedy, of course, but the humour comes from the fact that he still has enough rational thought to construct a complex statement even though he says he's terrified. It's a very pleasant spoof of any character who's ever been unrealistically rooted to the spot with fear in every horror film you've seen.

7. "Print is Dead" in Ghostbusters
Janine Melnitz: You're very handy, I can tell. I bet you like to read a lot, too.
Dr. Egon Spengler: Print is dead.
Janine Melnitz: Oh, that's very fascinating to me. I read a lot myself. Some people think I'm too intellectual but I think it's a fabulous way to spend your spare time. I also play raquetball. Do you have any hobbies?
Dr. Egon Spengler: I collect spores, molds, and fungus.

Ghostbusters! Twice! Well, it is one of the best comedy films every made. OK, print wasn't dead back in '84, but it is now! And it's funny for both those reasons. Why? Because it makes me laugh, that is why.

8. "Suck my Tits?" in This Is England
Smell: You're dead sensitive.
Are you all right?
Are you sure?
Do you want me to kiss you again?
Do you wanna suck my tits?

Wholly inappropriate, uncomfortable and weird, When Smell asks Shaun quite casually if he'd like to suck her tits the only sensible reaction is to laugh. And then be violently sick.

9. Biggus Dickus in Life of Brian
Pontius Pilate: So, yaw fatha was a Woman? Who was he?
Brian: He was a Centurion, in the Jerusalem Garrisons.
Pontius Pilate: Weally? What was his name?
Brian: 'Naughtius Maximus'.
[the Centurion laughs]
Pontius Pilate: Centuwion, do we have anyone of that name in the gawwison?
Centurion: Well, no, sir.
Pontius Pilate: Well, you sound vewy sure. Have you checked?
Centurion: Well, no, sir. Umm, I think it's a joke, sir... like, uh, 'Sillius Soddus' or... 'Biggus Dickus', sir.

As I said in Part 1, nothing is funnier than watching people trying not to laugh. Nothing!

10. Bank Robbery in Take the Money and Run
Bank Teller #1: Does this look like "gub" or "gun"?
Bank Teller #2: Gun. See? But what does "abt" mean?
Virgil: It's "act". A-C-T. Act natural. Please put fifty thousand dollars into this bag and act natural.
Bank Teller #1: Oh, I see. This is a holdup?

Take The Money And Run is probably my favourite comedy film ever, but I chose this sequence (among many hilarious ones) to show it off.