Monday, 25 June 2012

Pookie Loves Crack

Having just reviewed King of New York for The Quietus, and in passing dismissed New Jack City as inferior (and having a spare afternoon to boot), I decided to dig out the DVD and give it the once over.

It's truly amazing to cast my mind back through the mists of time and remember that Ice-T was once very much 'The Shit'. Before his TV career in NCIS: Wetwang, before his appearance at Wrestlemania IV escorting the Godfather and his Hoes to the ring, even before his series of straight to DVD action film collaborations with 4th rate proto-Boll Albert Pyun Ice-T was a successful hip hop star with a reputation for hard edged but humourously puerile, anti-establishment albums. Following a brief appearance as a DJ in Breakdance 2: Electric Boogaloo Ice got the taste for celluloid and shortly afterwards would become the first crossover hip hop movie star, setting in motion a trend that would eventually reach its sad nadir when bullet-ridden human colander Fiddy Cent would play himself in the autobiographical, and staggeringly obnoxious, Get Rich or Die Trying. Every rapper and their Dogg may have made the leap from CD to cinema (or more frequently DVD) in the intervening years but back in 1991 Ice T was blazing a trail. Of course it was unlikely at the time that he realised that his path would lead to Frankenpenis (1996) or Leprechaun in the Hood (2000) but in those early days his acting career described quite the arc and he did some decent movies in the early 90s, including a couple of interesting character roles, albeit in the spectacularly unsuccessful and poorly received science fiction movies Johnny Mnemonic and Tank Girl. The character he played in these, and frankly all films, was himself but that just puts him in esteemed company alongside the Shatners and Roger Moore's of the thespian art.


Mario Van Peebles, fresh off directing duties on iconic US TV show 21 Jump Street, made his feature film directorial debut in 1991 opting to follow very much in his father's footsteps. Mario's dad, Melvin Van Peebles, was an actor/director himself and was most famously responsible for Blaxploitation classic Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, as well as a number of other less successful but equally entertaining crime thrillers. Mario's take on the genre was altogether more glossy, commercial and high profile and was about to launch the career of Ice T as a credible movie presence but also provide breakthrough roles for two more of the USA's higher profile African-American personalities of the following 20 years. Chris Rock's brilliant turn as Pookie, a recovered junky turned informant, launched him into the mainstream of the US entertainment stratosphere. It was a role he would also later revisit to hilarious effect in Keenan Ivory Wayan's Blaxploitation spoof I'm Gonna Git You Sucka and his own brilliant riff on the hip hop music industry, CB4. Rock wasn't the only beneficiary of an appearance in New Jack City. Head villain and all round rotter Nino Brown was depicted by Wesley Snipes in his breakthrough cinematic role.

My memory states quite categorically that New Jack City has its fair share of cool and quotable scenes, enough for a riotous evening in with beer and buddies and, watching it again, they at first seem to have retained their charm. Our introduction to protagonist Scotty Appleton (Ice T) finds him chasing small time crook Pookie (Chris Rock who), pedalling furiously on a BMX, soon comes a cropper in a kids playground. Once accosted hilarious dialogue ensues...

Ice T: "You think you slick, you little punk, blasphemous, dope-fiend bitch! Spit in my face I'm gonna kill you!"
Onlooker 1: "Yo man you fucking that kid up."
Onlooker 2: "He's kicking his monkey ass!"
Even better the whole scene is accompanied by Original Gangster album track New Jack Hustler and Ice T is wearing copious amounts of gold, an outrageously voluminous beanie and bitching black shell suit pants and matching Raiders jacket. What's not to like?

Cut to the projects and a whole raft of rope thick gold necklaces and medallions to make the Beegees not only jealous but postively sick with inadequacy. Here we meet Nino Brown (Wesley Snipes) and his buddies, early in their careers as hustlers but already drenched in gold and dollar sign rings the size of knuckle dusters and cruising the streets in a open top 4x4. Nino's buddies Gee Money proceeds to introduce a vial of crack cocaine, the crux of the plot, and produce cinema's greatest ever put-down of a brother with a speech impediment...

Duh-duh-duh Man: "Yo man, y-y-you know the rules. Us b-brothers don't be getting high."
Gee Money: "Shut the fuck up and drive the car you non-talking bastard."

New Jack City arguably trumps King of New York in the following scene by boasting an amusing cameo from Flavor-Flav as an emcee in Nino's favourite club. Certainly a more fashionable and en vogue presence at the time than Freddie Jackson, although FJ's appearance (playing himself performing at a high society function) in KoNY is more logical and, in context, more impactful. NJC then shits all over itself with a frankly hideous acapella performance by Boyz II Men as a group of tuneful street bums singing for your pleasure and mine around a trashcan and accompanying a montage (YEAH... A MONTAGE....) illustrating the expansion of Nino's crack empire. Ironic really as I'm sure Boyz II Men probably drove hundreds of thousands across the USA in the early 90s to take up smoking base in order to dull the terrifying effects of their banal, omnipresent brand of vanilla R&B.

Now THIS is a montage!
The remainder of NJC has a few great scenes, the highlights mosty involving Chris Rock's Pookie, but it becomes a formulaic affair. Nino takes over the city's drug trade and crack becomes the scourge of the poor. Scotty gets lumbered by his grumpy captain, who has the mayor and the governor on his ass and needs results fast, with a similarly edgy and rule-breaking partner in the form of Nick Peretti (a token Judd Nelson). Peretti wears unlaced boots and rides a motorcycle, that generally being the limit of his characterisation, and exists purely to act as handler for Scotty when he goes undercover to infiltrate Nino's outfit. The two polar opposites, Scotty and Nino, embark upon a collision course and fall out with those around them until, exhausted by the parade of mostly shit tunes and rudimentary action, Scotty reveals one last crow-barred in revelation that suggests Van Peebles perhaps watched Tim Burton's Batman. But not before he makes the single most stupid policing decision in history by putting reformed crack-head Pookie on the inside of Nino's crack factory operation. That's some nice work. In Scotty's defence this decision does result in one of the film's most iconic scenes. 

Poor Pookie.

On the whole New Jack City is a fun period piece but it has aged in a lot of ways. At the time of its release it was hailed as a gritty modern gangster tale but today it's just a little bit kitsch, cliched and superficial. However Ice-T's wardrobe is kick-ass throughout, particularly in the hat department, and it's still a lot of fun.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Alcohol Fuelled Twat

There are a number of prevalent misnomers in society these days, and one of them is that alcohol causes aggression. Bollocks. Alcohol simply magnifies parts of our personality and disengages certain brakes and failsafes.

We are in a time when newspapers declare that 'Alcohol Fuelled Violence Has Created No-Go Areas' and every town has its rat-run of cheap booze filled emporiums akin to the gin palaces of old, where the run -down and stressed denizens of our Big Society can enter various states of intoxication whilst engaging in moronic hollering contests, displays of pallid goose flesh and labyrinthine sex-driven subterfuge. Or so it appears to their impaired brains, anyone with a bit of unimpeded grey matter knows they're just disappearing for a shag, or an argument regarding the lack of shagging. In addition, from time to time, a male will posture up, begin bellowing and waving his tattoos to the accompaniment of a Greek chorus of screeching women brandishing and waving their shoes in elaborate patterns like those dudes on an aircraft carrier as they wave a stricken aircraft onto deck. Alas there is no arrestor strip outside Jaz Bar to slow this headlong plunge into stupidity.

Such an episode occurred yesterday and rather than stand or pass by as an observer, chuckling safely and smugly at the mindlessness of it all, I was part of the group in question. The worst perpetrator is an interesting case to say the least. When I completed my 68 mile journey to meet up with a couple of old pals one was sitting playing the piano with his back to the door as I walked in. I was slightly taken aback at the scene. I've known this guy for over ten years and at one point he and I were out on the town three times a week getting regularly and massively munted. We had a great time, every time. Once upon a yesterday he was a 'City Boot Boy', one of the local football team's less wholesome and community spirited fans but that was years ago and I knew him only as a warm, funny and enthusiastic drinking partner. Now, in his fifties, he is a successful professional public servant who lives with his partner on a farm with several horses and cockerels. Later that evening, after a few liveners, we discussed his recent entry into the Freemasons and, with my tongue firmly in my cheek, I accepted his assertion that I would make a great Freemason as I 'like history, and masonry is all about history'. Choking back the urge to start a debate over the merits of actual history versus invented tradition I took it in the spirit in which it was intended.

How the fuck, only three hours later, I ended up with him squaring up to me, bare ink-stained arms thrown wide like a looming gorilla, fists balled, teeth clenched and bared and growling, 'I don't give a fuck...' is something of a mystery to me. Somewhat taken aback I looked to the source of a high pitched female voice shouting, 'Pack it in, get in the taxi,' to see her, stilletoes in hand by a black cab and, for a moment ,I was out of my body observing the scene from above and thinking, 'Not so smug now are you, you silly bastard?'

The most tempting explanation as to why this occurred, one which was posited by another member of the group whom had been the target of the vast majority of this friend's aggression, was that he had simply had one too many.

Bollocks.

Alcohol does not make anyone behave like a primitive cunt. Being a primitive cunt on the other hand does. Sometimes it just takes a skinful for the rest of us to see it.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Return of the Living Dead - Blu Ray Review

All of the predominant hoo-ha doing the rounds this week, the week of the release of Prometheus, makes extensive mention of the massive genre influence of Ridley Scott and the dark, artful genius of Hans Rudi Giger. Very little mention has been made of one of the men behind the original concept of Alien, the late Dan O'Bannon. Yet this week, amidst the torrent of back-and-forth arguments as to the merit of Scott's new foray into the fertile territory that O'Bannon and his erstwhile writing partner Ron Shusett ploughed and seeded, one of the most entertaining and influential genre flicks of the 1980s slipped out of the shadows aboard a gloriously packed and sumptuously appointed blu-ray disc release.
Return of the Living Dead was the first non-Romero zombie movie to make an appreciable stamp on the mainstream horror genre and to this day the film is the only reason that the general public hold dear the tragic zombie's craving for 'Braaaaaaains!' It was also the first non-European risen dead flick to feature the 'modern', more energetic hyper-zombie, something widely and falsely attributed to the appallingly derivative 28 Days Later. For even more talented animated cadavers see Umberto Lenzi's Nightmare City.

ROTLD was originally to be directed by John Russo, the co-creator of the seminal Night of the Living Dead, based upon his own script, but studio shenanigans resulted in the appointment of O'Bannon. By that point in his career O'Bannon had a string of screenwriting successes to his name including Dark Star, Alien, Dead & Buried and, most recently, Blue Thunder. It was undoubtedly O'Bannon who would bring the fresh, unique and humourous edge to Russo's script and, in spite of his status as a first-time director (something O'Bannon himself disputed as he frequently claimed co-directorship of Dark Star, the breakthrough film for which his college buddy John Carpenter received sole directing credit), and in spite of stories regarding tension on the set and the director's prickly nature, the finished product is a tremendous slice of scary, funny and endlessly quotable horror goodness. Anyone who has had the misfortune to see John Russo's risible 'official' sequel to 1968's NOTLD, Children of the Living Dead, will probably agree that this was an incredibly sage decision on the part of the studio. In O'Bannon's hands Russo's script took on an altogether more grounded focus, whilst managing to inject killer dialogue, efficient characterisation, mostly top quality gore and animatronics and a much more front-and-centre, blackly but loudly comic form of satire than Romero's bleak and often clumsy social commentaries. His injection of punk sensibilities also managed to separate ROTLD from the parade of hair metal and/or lightweight hip-hop accompanied horror flicks that were its contemporaries at the time and that consequently now look substantially more dated and cheesy. The opposite is true of Dan O'Bannon's effort. After more than 25 years it successfully retains a sense of freshness and utter quotability. And scream queen Linnea Quigley gets nekkid and dances around a graveyard. That can only be described as a top result.
A quality movie deserves a quality release and Second Sight have undoubtedly done O'Bannon proud with well over five hours of special features, including an entertaining talking heads making-of documentary heaving with anecdotes from the everyone involved. The sad exceptions to that are O'Bannon himself (represented by a brief but moving interview recorded before his death) and actor Mark Venturini, a victim of leukemia at the tender age of 35. Purists will be pleased to learn that, although the US edition has a slightly altered soundtrack due to unresolved rights issues, this UK edition includes both the remastered track and the original 2.0 soundtrack as released.
Additional interest is provided in the form of short featurettes examining the first two sequels and why they generally failed to match the quality and appeal of O'Bannon's original. No mention is made of the futher two sequels filmed in Eastern Europe in the early noughties, probably for the best becasue the less attention that is brought to them the better.

Overall this is one of the best blu-ray releases of 2012 so far and Second Sight have set a very high bar for future releases of classic horror flicks. I would dearly love to see the O'Bannon scripted and Gary Sherman directed Dead & Buried get similar treatment. It's just a shame that O'Bannon is no longer around to be involved. For those who see Prometheus over the coming weeks take a moment to remember O'Bannon and Shusett's massive looming presence. In fact, to some extent, Prometheus could be described as an alternate take on their original Alien script, Star Beast.

Anyhoo, thank you Second Sight for a fantastic release of a fantastic film.


Friday, 1 June 2012

Prometheus

Ridley Scott... Science Fiction... Midnight screening... what could possibly go wrong?

3D. It's shit. I hate it. For all of the gimmicky wonder it brings it just fails in all kinds of subtle ways.

3D is like the Nu-Metal of the movie magic making process.

It's been done before, albeit in a more primitive fashion. It's not about art but about gimmickry and is far too focused on transient spectacle and selling units. It takes the sharp edges away from an otherwise exhilirating medium and it makes a difficult to perceive mess of complex arrangements. Hopefully it will die horribly and let us all get back to business as usual.

Like John Carter a couple of months ago TV has been littered with trailers in 2D during which a number of scenes look eye shatteringly gorgeous. The shot of a starship descending through clouds looked like a Chris Foss painting come alive. Shots of the interior of a mysterious temple/crypt were lush with fine detail. An action scene felt kinetic and exciting. In the cinema the starship scene looks dull, divested of all colour vibrancy by the 3D glasses. The temple/crypt lacks fine resoution. The action is difficult to follow and hard on the eyes thanks to the 3D image becoming a stuttering morass when the camera pans quickly. It's just tragic. It also makes me wonder whether cinemas are actually equipped to display the RealD process correctly and we are being ripped off in grand fashion, or whether my eyes are simply freakishly unable to deal with the process. In short I will be seeing it again, but in 2D, and I fully expect to be blown away by the visuals because Prometheus is a spectacular movie.

3D gripes aside I can honestly say that Prometheus is the science fiction movie I have been waiting for for a long time. The connection with Scott's original and seminal Alien is undeniable and reinforced on a number of occasions early in the piece, from snatches of Jerry Goldsmiths original signature score to commonality of design touches in the technology on display. The way in which Scott establishes a core thematic familiarity between the low-fi industrial world of the Nostromo and the ultra high-tech trillionaire's starship Prometheus paves the way for what is to come. The design sensibilities suffuse the film with a mythic scope that resonated with me on a deeply emotional level. It is a thing of utter beauty. Despite their lack of direct involvement with the making of this movie both Ron Cobb and H.R. Giger are the spiritual core of almost everything on screen for the full two hour running time. That's not to say that the production designers on Prometheus simply reproduced the work of those two great visualists but they took their work on Alien as a core aesthetic upon which to build a fresh perspective on that universe, and they did a beautiful job.


Similarly the story itself builds upon what has gone before by infusing Shusett and O'Bannon's blue-collar corporate future with new themes. Equal parts von Daniken's Chariots of the Gods, Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness and Alien combine to create true conceptual science fiction. When fused with the staggering visuals what gone possibly go wrong?

Pacing.
Not necessarily in terms of ratcheting up tension or excitement because the film flows and progresses well as a thriller, but in terms of character. At least two crucial plot points hinge upon the behaviour of key characters and on first viewing these behaviours seemed almost crow-barred in to serve the overall flow from A to B to C. Moments of self-sacrifice for example only tend to work onscreen if there is sufficient emotional investment from, and/or obvious character-driven logic imparted to, the audience. I felt that both were conspiculously lacking and those key points, along with some tremendously fake-looking old person prosthetics, threatened to take me out of the moment. Of course it is perfectly possible on the character progression points that I was so agog at the spectacle that I missed finer nuances of characterisation. Only a second viewing will answer that for me. Ridley Scott also has a habit of releasing extended versions on DVD so perhaps additional character moments will flesh out the plot and make certain decisions and events make a little bit more sense.

My expectations for Prometheus were probably unreasonably high and although I am certainly not disappointed I don't feel as shatteringly affected as I hoped to be. Despite this Promethues is still, hands down, the best Science Fiction film in years, probably since Blade Runner. Sure, there have been great sci-fi films but Prometheus is Science Fiction of the highest order. Better still it takes the mythology of the original Alien film and expands it enormously, more so in fact that all of the official sequels and risible cross-over abortions managed to do combined.

And now we hear that Scott is to revisit Blade Runner. I hate to wish my life away for the sake of movies but holy shit, I can't wait to see it.

2nd Viewing Update: NOW IN 2D!!!

Having seen Prometheus again (in glorious 2D) I can confirm that that lack of emotional impact the first time around led me to view the film the second time in a slightly different manner, and this time I was armed with an extra nugget of knowledge. On first viewing I blamed my inability to absorb key plot points (hence the pacing of the film and the behaviour of the characters feeling 'off') on my lack of perception in the face of visual splendour. Had I known in advance that scriptwriter Damien Lindelof was one of the writers of Lost I would have adjusted my expectations accordingly. This time I did and the result is one of bewilderment. Visually Prometheus tells an epic story. Dialogue and script-wise it teases greatness but generally fails to deliver, not because it is too oblique or insufficiently opaque, but because it is utterly shallow and liable to crumble under any scrutiny.

Nevertheless I still think it is a great, but critically flawed, piece of work. I had held high hopes for an extended version for home video release but to be honest there is very little point if the glaring flaws are not resulting from a studio-imposed reduced running time, but essentially down to an extremely brittle script. The main questions in my mind are no longer related to film content, but to why Ridley Scott, a meticulous film-maker obsessed with detail, would fuck the dog so grandly in one key area? 

Of course an answer does occur to me fairly quickly. 

On paper the idea of a big budget, Scott helmed return to the Alien universe is tantalising and full of possibilities. Unfortunately the commercial demands on such an outing will always compromise any result, either in the form of a substantially reduced budget, a more family friendly rating or in the form of massively reduced expectations on the IQ levels of the target audience. In the case of Prometheus I suspect it was the latter. I dearly wish Dan O'Bannon were still around to pass judgement on what is effectively an alternate take on his and Ron Shusett's original Alien script, Star Beast. In fact in may be that the death of Dan O'Bannon is the one of the key reasons for all of the above because surely he would have been Scott's first port of call when the train started rolling.

We now live in an age when 2001: A Space Odyssey or the original Planet of the Apes could never get made. 

Under modern studio conditions is Prometheus as good as it could ever have hoped to be?

No, I don't believe that. There must be popular film-makers and writers around who could have accomplished the task of making the Prometheus script not only conceptually sound but able to 'pop' with audiences. 

Despite all of this I still have high hopes for any Ridley Scott venture back into Blade Runner territory. Initial reports suggest that original screenwriter Hampton Fancher is already working on a draft screenplay so there may be some promise of greatness... again.