Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Mitchell Lichtenstein - Teeth (2007)

There is, of course, a long tradition of the horror movie as a metaphor for the disturbing bodily changes and desires of the teenager. And there are a number of (relatively) recent films in this genre which I esteem highly - particularly the excellent Ginger Snaps, and also Cabin Fever (shame about the execrable Hostel). I was hoping Teeth would fall into this basket. I didn't think that the film could possibly live up to the tagline, "a coming of age story via David Cronenberg," but I thought its presence might be a positive sign nonetheless. And so, after reading some polarised reviews, I thought I'd give it a go.

Having done so, I'd have to agree with the reviewers who called this film a missed opportunity. Speaking of metaphors, while the teen sexuality one is very much in evidence, as far as fear of female sexuality Lichtenstein (incidentally, the son of the famous pop artist) has decided just to dispense with the whole metaphor thing, and go straight for the vagina dentata. The film began promisingly. Twenty-year-old Dawn (Jess Weixler) is a teen abstinence advocate. There are some nicely done, though very heavy handed, early scenes satirising the 'promise keepers,' and throwing in some material on evolution (an evolutionary mutation is the nominal explanation for Dawn's, ahem, VD) and pointing out the sexism inherent in this kind of discourse. But as soon as Dawn's seemingly abstinence-supportive friend Tobey (Hale Appleman) forces himself upon her, we move into fairly standard horror territory. All men are sexual predators, except a girl's daddy - including doctors, and creepy stepbrothers (incidentally, I don't know why filmic purveyors of violence are so often portrayed as pierced - facial piercings have a nasty habit of getting ripped out in violent encounters); and they're going to get what they deserve (I don't intend to imply here, by the way, that this is a misandric story - that's not it at all).

It is refreshing, if that's the word, to see a film where the 'female rape revenge' story isn't played out in a context of brutal, bleak rape voyeurism, a la I Spit On Your Grave. But as soon as the violence starts, the story veers from quasi-realist to non-realist in a rather dissatisfying way (it's the veer I object to, not the one or the other); characters seem to have little or no motivation for their actions, and to behave out of character for the sake of the evolution of the predictable plot, while the interesting discussion about female sexuality and constructions of viscerality, religion, fear, humiliation, and sexual power is instantly jettisoned.

The film isn't worth rejecting out of hand; visually it's nicely done, and it remains an interesting concept which I admire for having a stab at revealing the subject matter which remains a misogynistic subtext in most horror films; and turning a spotlight upon that subject matter as an overt subject for a narrative, and for reflection, in its own right. But given that this somewhat valiant attempt is doomed to failure early on, the accomplishment of this film is to open up possibilities of further investigation of this kind of approach to the standard tropes of the horror genre, rather than to accomplish a meaningful investigation in itself.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Jamaica Funk: Original Jamaican Funk and Soul 45s (Soul Jazz, 2007)

We're lucky to have Soul Jazz, which covers a rather eclectic selection falling into my own musical taste - that area covering post-punk and new wave as well as reggae, disco, and funk - and they've given us such post-punk gems as The Sexual Life of the Savages and New York Noise, as well as various Studio One compilations and releases by personal favourites including Konk, ESG, Arthur Russell, Mantronix and A Certain Ratio. And that's just to name a few.

This particular compilation, which collects tracks from 1972-1978, falls into the basket of recent releases of Jamaican music from the 60s and 70s falling outside the traditional reggae canon (other notable works include Trojan's Work Your Soul and Blood & Fire's Darker Than Blue.

Like those releases, the tracks featured on Jamaica Funk aren't actually reggae-free, so to speak; there's a clear musical influence on most of these cuts, which are for the most part more closely wedded to the reggae tradition, and then to soul, than to, say, the funk of James Brown or George Clinton. There are some familiar names here (testifying to the diverse talents of Jamaican musicians): Augustus Pablo (with two instrumental cuts of 'Ain't No Sunshine,' a version of which also appears on Original Rockers), Derrick Harriott, The Heptones and Big Youth, among others.

Like other Soul Jazz releases, this is a very well put together selection, which flows nicely, dud-free, and an interesting range of sounds, showcasing this soul-funk-reggae fusion area. As Soul Jazz suggest, there's a three-way fusion of Jamaican, American and British trends in the work featured here which made itself felt both in the music musicians were listening to, and in the nature of emerging markets for the Jamaican sound in the UK and the US. Particular highlights are the moody instrumentals: Cedric Brooks' Silent Force, Winston Wright's Jam #1 and The Rebels' Rhodesia. I was also very taken by Sydney, George & Jackie's cover of perennial favourite Papa Was A Rolling Stone (while various other covers of funk and soul tunes are also in evidence). For a different slant on Jamaican popular music, uncovering connections which may not be obvious or well-documented; or, on the other hand, an excellent selection and construction of a bunch of funky reggae numbers; it's well worth your while taking a look, or rather, a listen.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

William Asher (dir.) & Samuel Z. Arkoff (prod.) - Beach Blanket Bingo (1965)

I never imagined that beach party films would be a genre that I'd come to have an interest in - although I did have a lot of time for Charles Busch & Robert Lee King's erotic beach horror spoof Psycho Beach Party (2000), and I'm not averse to the more interesting manifestations of tiki culture, despite it's overtones of neocolonialist appropriation.

But having recently spent a lot of time listening to surf rock (despite the best efforts of Quentin Tarantino to put me off by featuring it prominently in his overhyped, unoriginal films) I thought it best to go to the classical sources of surf culture, so to speak, despite the fact that the music on display is much more sixties pop than surf per se. BBB happened to be staring up at me from the shelves at my local film purveyor, and so became the first candidate. It features the two major stars of the beach party series, teen idol Frankie Avalon as himself, and notorious Mousketeer Annette Funicello.

I have to say, there's not actually a lot of surfing in this one, which didn't particularly bother me. Each of the films is loosely set around a different activity, with this, the fifth instalment of the Beach Party series (made over the course of only two years), being nominally about skydiving (giving the opportunity for some nice romantic war-of-the-sexism duologues). I'm a general fan of sixties 'genre' pieces in music, fashion and film, and in this aspect BBB doesn't disappoint - the DVD transfer is nicely done and the colours are gorgeous.

It's hard to know how much of the camp is completely intended, and how much isn't. The villain of the piece, Eric von Zipper and his motorcycle gang, actually verges on frustrating, being even less realist in his acting than the other characters (oh, except for the character who's a mermaid, that is) with some 'humorous' catchphrases which I found irritatingly unfunny despite their awful B-movie characteristicicity (if you'll allow me the word). The musical numbers are randomly dropped into the plot; and at one point we seem to have suddenly left the world of teen movies and found ourselves in a James Bond, then in a horror spoof. The randomness of all of this is rather endearing in itself.

Ultimately, although at an hour and a half my full attention was a little overstretched, I'll definitely give the other films in this series a go for something lighthearted with all the genre, period and B-grade thrills that the aficionado could desire.

P. D. James - A Certain Justice (1997)

I don't read crime very much, and almost never anything published after the 1960s (with the exception of C. J. Sansom's wonderful historical Matthew Shardlake series). But, having neglected to take sufficient holiday reading, I was thrown back on limited resources, and so I found myself reading P. D. James, who I've always heard spoken highly of - although in the fields of genre writing (or indeed other fields) this isn't necessarily any guarantee). My opinion after reading one work, though, is very much in agreement.

The plot concerns the murder of Venetia Aldridge, a high-flying lawyer who (as is so often the case) has provided various acquaintances with numerous reasons to wish for her death. One of the quotes on the book characterised James' work as 'Dickensian,' and, while the humorous and satirical aspect of Dickens' writing isn't to be found here, the atmosphere James creates around Chancery and the Inns of the Court (a legalistic atmosphere which might appear the driest possible setting) reminded me favourably of the only work of Dickens' that I have much time for, Bleak House. James' writing is sharp, clean, and observant, while the murder itself and the question of whodunnit, particularly in the early part of the book, takes a back seat to, or provides a vehicle for, characterisation and psychological observation. Adam Dalgliesh, James' well-known investigator, doesn't even appear until a good third of the way through the book.

While the plot itself isn't quite as 'realist' as every other aspect of the novel, and I found aspects of the denouement unsatisfactory (and thus perhaps more realist than most crime novels), overall I greatly enjoyed this work both from the perspective of a genre crime piece, and that of a work of literature. I'll definitely be reading more P. D. James.