We've Been Watching...

Here at the Digital Fix we don’t simply watch the films that we write about. Of course, the review discs take priority so as to keep our readership informed of the latest releases, but still we find the time to satisfy our various tastes and predilections. As such we’ve come up with a new fortnightly feature in which to share some of our off-duty viewing. Every other Wednesday we’ll be asking the reviewing team to highlight some of the films they’ve been watching, whether it’s on a big screen or small, an ancient title or brand new…

IAN SANDWELL: With my real-life film journo guise in tow, last week saw my third visit to Montreal’s always-excellent Fantasia International Film Festival. So I thought I’d use this opportunity to flag up some of the gems I caught there.

First up are two films that I’m desperate to see get distribution of some kind on these shores. Jeremy Gardner’s The Battery might seem like your standard zombie film on the surface, but prepare to be as surprised as I was. As intimate as it is touching, it’s a micro-budget beauty and basically a zombie films without any zombies. Brave in its choices, its third act takes place in the confines of a car, and contains a nigh on wordless 10-minute sequence.

On similar intimate terms was Matt Johnson’s shocking and powerful The Dirties. Effectively a "high school shooting" movie, it’s delivered in a really unique take on the mockumentary/found footage style which saw the filmmakers carry out dramatic scenes in front of real people. Playing like a high school comedy before taking its dramatic climactic turn, it’s a compelling and, at times, uncomfortable watch. Kevin Smith and Phase 4 have picked it up for US distribution in October, so I’ve got my fingers crossed that a UK distributor is as determined as I am that it gets a release.

Last, but certainly by no means least, was the fantastic Big Bad Wolves, which also closes this year’s Film4 FrightFest. The second feature from Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado (whose ace Rabies was the first Israeli horror film) confirms the duo as two of the most exciting genre filmmakers working today. Striking a perfect balance between dark and light, this psychological thriller refuses to hold your hand, making its climax all the more devastating. Not bad for a film that for the most part, centres on three people in a basement. If you haven’t got your ticket for FrightFest, then Big Bad Wolves is a must-see.

JOHN WHITE: With the new seasons of US TV just around the corner, summer shows like Defiance and the recently begun Under the Dome have taken my attention. The latter has begun really well with its brave choices around leading characters and the former has just had a great episode that has shaken up a very limp mid-season. Dexter has returned for his final season with one great gag about his sister’s swearing, a scary Charlotte Rampling and some pretty dodgy set-up plotting in the regular cast. Happily Idris Elba was also back in the quite frankly surreal, happy nonsense that is Luther - Neil Cross is becoming quite the writer with his fine Who episodes this year as well.

I’ve revisited a few minor horror flicks as well. Leviathan (bonkers under the sea mutations), Trilogy of Terror (Karen Black in three Richard Matheson stories) and the wonderful My Bloody Valentine (pickaxe wielding miner dispatches young people). The most fun though came from Larry Cohen’s The Ambulance where Eric Roberts tries to pick up diabetic Janine Turner only for her to fall ill and disappear into the evil vehicle of the title. Witty, knowing and downright subversive - if only all films were written by Mr Cohen.

NICK CHEN: Films deserve to be seen in one sitting with complete attention. It’s partly why I’m yet to take on all 450 minutes of Sátántangó. However, Federico Fellini’s Oscar-winning Amarcord is testing my self-imposed rule. The scattered narrative is a succession of immature fantasies full of unfunny slapstick and caricatures. It’s a struggle to hang onto any strand when it’s structured like a whimsical sketch show. Part of the fault lies with me; I’ve impatiently paused the DVD every 10 minutes, taking breaks of one or two days. It might be another week until I reach the end. It’s clearly not how Fellini envisaged his film would be consumed when it was released in 1973, but I expected more from the mastermind behind , La Dolce Vita and La Strada.

ANTHONY NIELD: Even though it’s been regularly uploading films since 2008, it’s only recently that I’ve encountered the official YouTube channel of Film Australia. Set up in 1945 (as the Australian National Film Board), Film Australia would spend just over six decades educating and advertising the nation thanks to thousands of short films. If you’ve sampled any of the British Film Institute’s documentary sets then you’ll know what to expect, albeit from an Oz perspective. 1974’s A Steam Train Passes, for example, is up there with the finest productions of the British Transport Film Unit, while From the Tropics to the Snow (a clever little post-modern take on the travelogue from 1964) was even co-directed by a Brit, namely Jack Lee, previously responsible for the likes of A Town Called Alice and The Wooden Horse.

There are currently well over a hundred videos on the Film Australia channel with fresh arrivals turning up on a weekly basis. As such I’ve only been able to sample its wares, though one particular gem does deserve a special mention. Hospitals Don’t Burn Down! was made in 1977 and designed primarily as a training aid for hospital staff. Its 24 highly realistic minutes chart the course of a major fire outbreak from an initial irresponsible act (a patient sneaking a cigarette disposes of it via the laundry chute) to the eventual death toll. As things worsen we are also witness to the various oversights and ill-discipline that no doubt prompted plenty of discussion during the training sessions.

Yet, like the best films of this sort, Hospitals Don’t Burn Down! never lets its educational intent overburden the cinematic concerns. The director was Brian Trenchard-Smith, an Ozploitation icon these days thanks to Quentin Tarantino’s repeated endorsements, who already had the likes of The Man from Hong Kong and Deathcheaters to his name. (Stunt Rock, BMX Bandits, Dead-End Drive-In, et al were still to come.) He approaches this film just as he would any other with an emphasis on the stunt work, upping the tension and, generally, scaring the hell of the audience. Such is the level of realism Hospitals Don’t Burn Down! still gets screened to nurses nowadays, while its artistry wasn’t lost on the film festival scene, where it picked up a number of awards. Trenchard-Smith considers it his finest work and he may very well be right. An Ozploitation public information film shouldn’t work and yet the end results are striking. Fans of gruesome British PIFs, such as Apaches and The Finishing Line, are invited to press play on the video below…

DAVE FOSTER: Third Window Films recently released Takashi Miike’s second foray into the musical genre with For Love’s Sake, a romantic comedy-drama based on a seventies’ manga series. The film follows the one-sided love affair between a rich, pure-hearted high school girl and a boy from the wrong side of the tracks. Infatuated with him since he saved her life as a child, when the girl chances upon the boy in their late teen years she does all she can to give him a normal life. Using her father’s connections she gets him out of prison and enrolled at her posh private school, but he’s not interested in a rich girl and does all he can to avoid her and get back to where he feels he belongs.

There’s a sweet and simple story at the core of this love story, one that is punctuated by impromptu song and dance scenes (all of the major characters get their own song at some point, usually to introduce them) and padded out by frequent fight sequences as the boy loves finding trouble. Most of the humour comes from the class divide, the rough and tumble boy in a posh school, then the sweet and proper girl who follows him to a public school overrun by gangs. But it’s also present throughout thanks to the wonderful performances from the leads who exude charm and in the case of Takei Emi, a wonderful goofy innocence as the pure-hearted girl.

The musical interludes are a huge amount of fun and really superbly choreographed and performed, while the overall story is interesting and boasts a large roster of fun characters, but does sag in the middle. This is mostly due to a lengthy runtime and lack of songs after the first hour, leaving us with lots of fighting and a period of time where we’re simply waiting for the girl to chase after the boy and end up in a rough high school where the tables will turn and she’ll be the fish out of water. It turns it around for a bittersweet ending however and even when it lulls there’s enough here to entertain and hold your interest. It’s also worth noting this is one of the best-looking Miike films I’ve seen and is a real treat on Blu-ray.

Also from TWF is The Foreign Duck, The Native Duck and God in a Coin Locker. This excellent Japanese drama/comedy from director Yoshihiro Nakamura weaves a multi-layered story from the perspective of several characters. The actual plot is hard to summarise so I won’t even try, instead I’ll just say it features great performances with characters who are often charming and captivating to watch. It also boasts plenty of laughs, genuine intrigue and some moments of great sadness as the story comes together. Well worth seeking out and I look forward to catching the director’s better known Fish Story soon.

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