Sunday, 13 June 2010

From the sublime to the gorblimey

When you watch as many movies as I do, they really do run the gamut from the great to the pathetic. Although I occasionally succumb to good taste and sensibility and 'kill' a film midstream, I try not to give up on those previously unseen, even if it is something of an effort to stick with the more idiotic ones. In between the two extremes, one comes across a number of curiosities, a few with lasting cult appeal, and a great number of watchable-but-forgettable entries. Two of the several many flicks I've seen since last writing, slot into this sliding scale of watchability:

Bruno (2009): Maybe I have suffered a humour bypass or maybe it's just a generational thing, but I stuck with this movie, despite hating great chunks of it. I do know that Sacha Baron Cohen is an intelligent man from a cultured family background, but his use of offbeat characters to dramatize his barbs at modern society and tastes is fast running out of steam. First Ali-G, then Borat, and now the gay Austrian fashionista Bruno have been let loose on the movie-going public; I can only hope that there are no other bad-taste brothers waiting in the wings. Cohen may be clever, but he is really not that funny, and it is all too easy to make fun of sitting ducks. I found "Borat..." (2006) just about watchable; there is a certain perverse humour in dead serious 'talking heads' not realising that they are the butt of some forced joke, as Cohen's character mouths more and more outrageous statements to challenge their sensibilities. However in this latest outing, I did feel that most of the similar confrontations were staged rather than spontaneous. I mean would any mother, desperate for her 30-pound baby to appear in TV adverts, agree that she could get its weight down by ten pounds in a week or would agree for him to be dressed as Hitler!

After losing his fashion perch on Austrian TV, Bruno decides to conquer America and to become famous. As each of his more outlandish ideas alienates a growing number of enemies, he decides that only 'straight' men achieve fame in the U.S. and looks for a charitable cause to make his name. So the audience is forced to watch a dire selection of would-be Israeli-Arab peace negotiations, the exploitation of an 'adopted' African baby, his sparring with 'gay converters', his attendance at a swingers' party, and his stint with the Alabama National Guard (apparently a real try-it-on until he was recognised as Borat). He finally achieves the notoriety he covets by a gross-out love-making scene with his faithful poofy assistant that goes viral by you-tube coverage. The film ends with his cod peace anthem being crooned by Bono, Chris Martin, Elton John (sitting on a Mexican -- an earlier joke), Sting, and others. Tell me the fault lies with me and that this really is the stuff of good humour...

Against this dire outing, let me recommend "Angel" from 1984, a cult item, not to be confused with the 30s Dietrich starrer which I wrote about recently or Neil Jordan's IRA shocker from the same decade. The tagline reads "A-student by day, hooker by night", as 15-year old Molly aka Angel takes to the streets to earn the dosh to keep her at her snobby private school after first Dad and then Mom took a hike when she was twelve. Pretending that her mother is ill in bed, she forms a dysfunctional surrogate family unit with an emaciated Rory Calhoun playing an erstwhile film cowboy (a riff on his own screen career), comedian Dick Shawn as an over-the-top transvestite queen, and the always eccentric Susan Tyrrell as a punk dyke artist. A nutter, effectively portrayed by John Diehl, is murdering her young co-workers on Hollywood Boulevard and is out to get Angel as well after she picks him out of a police line-up.

This low-budget outing epitomises the sleazy reality of a hooker's precarious life, particularly as portrayed by the angelic-looking Donna Wilkes, who never appeared in anything so good either before or after. There is lots of gratuitious nudity (although not by Wilkes), but that is not the reason that this film became an unexpected and surprise exploitation hit. It's the interesting characters, the non-stop action, and the sense of an environment populated by entertaining outcasts. The movie produced two lesser sequels ("Avenging Angel" and "Angel 3: The Final Chapter") in each of which Angel was portrayed by a different actress. Unsurprisingly neither achieved the success of the original despite Calhoun and Tyrell appearing in the second, with none of the original cast in the third. The first of the trilogy however remains a nifty example of the kind of tasty independent film-making that often achieved a minor greatness in that less commercial decade.
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