#137 – Helmland Hustle, The

(2009, GB, 101 min) Dir Michael Winterbottom. Cast Steve Coogan, Jason Issacs, Tom Hardy, Riz Ahmed.

“So, tell me, in your own words,” asks Mike, a Nick Broomfield-alike documentary filmmaker played by Steve Coogan, of young soldier Newell (Hardy), “What do you think that the British army is still doing here, in Afghanistan?” Newell opens his mouth, closes it, and then looks to the left of the screen where Jason Issacs’ Oliver Messing stands. Messing is the Media Relations Officer for this division, sent by the MOD to ‘liase’ between the troops and the filmmakers. He shakes his head and Newell turns back to Mike and the camera. “I’m afraid I can’t be answering that question sir,” he says. Half mock-doc and half feature, The Helmland Hustle slots quite comfortably alongside 24 Hour Party People and A Cock and Bull Story in the Winterbottom/Coogan collaborations though it’s not quite as pointedly self-referential as either. The only issue with the film is that while it lays out it’s satirical stall early on it fails to cash in on this, focussing more on personality clashes than the absurdity of the situation they are all in. Besides that it’s still very funny with a great turn from Issacs, here quite ably keeping pace with improv veteran Coogan, and from Riz Ahmed playing an interpreter who despite blagging the job doesn’t actually speak the local language.

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#136 – Northern Sector

(1988, GB, 100 min) Dir Pete Foster Cast Neil Morrissey, Peter Capaldi, Denis Lavant.

Scotland, the unspecified future. Chemical Nuclear Industries are the government of Great Britain now and north of Hardian’s Wall the country has been appropriated as their nuclear production zone with hundreds of power plants fuelling the whole of Europe. Into this steps Gary (Morrissey), a lowly maintainance officer fresh out of training, tasked with battling the countryside’s feral occupants to repair a pipeline damaged by the AFEN, the Armée Française d’Énergie Nucléaire (the French Nuclear Energy Army) a gang of foreign interest saboteurs angling through violent action for a contract for their home country’s nationalised industry. Of course things don’t go as smoothly as all that and soon enough Gary’s a hostage of the locals who may be horribly mutated but aren’t all that bad. Cue a showdown with the nefarious AFEN who want Gary for reasons of their own… A cheap but spirited flick that takes enough time out of it’s genre necessities to poke fun at the Thatcherite privatisations of the era. Worth admission alone for the terrible mutant makeup that Peter Capaldi, as High Clan Lord O’Mac, is forced act under.

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#135 – Fra Midnat (From Midnight)

(2006, Den, 109 min) Dir Jan Hodl (Uncredited). Cast Per Spee, Tomas Peter, Michael Samsa.

When people think of Dogme 95 they invariably think of the first two, Festen and The Idiots by Vinterberg and Von Trier when in fact there were a great many more that received the official certification but didn’t make as much of an impact on the public consciousness. Number 47, Midnight On, is one such film. Like the great majority of Dogme film, the muddy mundanity of the visuals seems, at a glance, to be reflected in the content, following as it does one night in the life of a trio of suburban Satanist youths as they drink, smoke drugs, take a stolen car for a spin and, from the titular time of night, worship their dark lord. A closer inspection reveals the dark comedy at play with mothers not having washed certain members cloaks, a sacrificial kitten being too cute to kill and even the joyriding going awry when they are confronted by the vehicle’s burly owner. The film’s kids are trying their best to be grim and gritty but just don’t have what it takes. Even the patented Dogme style works for once too – while not a found footage film it looks like it could have been filmed using equipment any one of these middle class children have lying around in their house.

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#134 – White Hell

(1930, US, 100 min, b/w) Dir William Z Dolman. Cast Henry Lensing, Piper Pitt, Tom Claus.

Two fisted ice-bound thriller. A heavily moustached Tom Claus is underhanded seal baron Ogdon Bush, a man content to lord over his own personal fiefdom in the frozen wastes of Alaska until rogue philanthropist Lou Seward – quietly played by the ice eyed Lensing – drags his wind lashed carcass into Bush’s town. Bush sees the errant Seward nursed back to health by his mistress Amy (a glowing Pitt) and God knows he tries to get the man on board but aside from being a man of business, the principled Seward is also a dedicated animal lover hell-bent in beating back the seal pelt industry even if it means taking men like Bush on one at a time. Thus the stage is set for a battle of iron wills with the love crossed Amy stuck in the middle. A none more rousing finale make exceptional use of the abandoned Arctic paradise sets left in ruins from Hans Bismark’s 1924 flop The Cogs of the World as the set of a ten minute firefight that ends, as firefight are wont to do, in tragedy. The first landmark film from forgotten genius Dolman.

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#133 – Roi Du Canard, Le (King of the Ducks, The)

(1954, Fr, 65 min, b/w) Dir Albert. Cast Albert, Romy Pice, Joseph M.

A young man (deadpan director/performer Albert) is found in his pyjamas on the early morning streets of Paris, walking to and fro with his hands behind his back, stopping occasionally to bob his head. A passing milkman stops to ask if he is okay but in response the man just quacks. The milkman eventually takes him to a nearby police station where he is jokingly named Donald by the officers. A massive campaign to identify him is launched with no luck but in the meantime a local doctor offers to take Donald in where he befriends the doctor’s daughter. All is well until a mix up with the shifty groundskeeper one night leads to the young man being incarcerated in a local asylum where, during a midnight ceremony, he is crowned the King of the Ducks by his fellow inmates, complete with cardboard crown. The film ends with the downcast Donald sitting on the grass outside wearing his crown, looking up and smiling at a V of ducks passing overhead and off into the distance, calling after them with proud quacks of his own. Though it starts as a comedy it ends firmly in the realm of the classic weepy and any public screening I’ve attended has been awash in hot salty tears by the end.

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#132 – Carrion Crow

(1974, GB, 100 min) Dir Harold Andsley. Cast Ian Ogilvy, Franco Francini, Maria Perschy.

Good old Harrow Productions – there wasn’t a popular British film of the seventies that they didn’t half-assedly rip off and in Harold Andsley they had their star director. The Devil Rides Out does well? He can get you Death to the Devil! knocked off in a fortnight. Witchfinder General causing a stir? He’ll get you Carrion Crow – the tale of a medieval demon hunter – in a trice. The one thing that nobody could have foreseen however is that Andsley might have made a good film. Perhaps it was his passion for the subject, having studied the Middle Ages in Oxford? Perhaps it was a complete accident? Who knows! Carrion Crow is Ogilvy’s Crusades scarred knight brought into the service of the church to scour the haunted isles of Britain, rooting out the demonic influence that is trying to take hold with his aged Italian aide Father Carfat (Francini). The film finds them having completed passage to Ireland where it seems they might have met their match in rural priestess Maria Perschy (who was Austrian but dyed her hair red for the part and was totally dubbed so let’s not split hairs) and her village of acolytes. A surprisingly effective and atmospheric picture and worth seeing for evidence that Andsley could make a good film if he really tried.

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#131 – Howard Schlong

(1973, US, 79 min) Dir Art Blitzen. Cast Harry Pork, Jemma Mitz, Orla Capp.

So, who’s to blame for the truly dire cinematic career of ‘Artless’ Art Blitzen? How about Ernest Lehman? How, you might ask, is the distinguished screen author (or co-author) of such film classics as Sabrina, North by Northwest and The Sound of Music responsible for the tin-eyed cultural crimes of as shameless and inept a smut merchant as Blitzen? Well, I’ll tell you. In 1972, for reasons best know to Lehman, he made his one and only directorial effort with an adaptation of Philip Roth’s classic novel of sex and Judaism Portnoy’s Complaint which was about as well received with the critics as a firebomb in a Kurosawa retrospective. Not only did the critics turn their nose up at the film but it so enraged one viewer in the shape of Art Blitzen (then known as a publisher of Z grade pornography) that he scraped together about a buck and a half and shot his own version which equalled more sex, less Judaism. The fact that it’s lead character (as personified by the sweaty Harry Pork) has been renamed Howard Schlong should clue you in to how much of Roth’s wit survived the process. It’s dire from top to bottom – it looks like it was shot through the bottom of a milk bottle, Jemma Mitz (as ‘The Chimp’) looks as though she’s dropped acid before each take and the boom mike is visible in so many scenes it should, by rights, have been given a co-lead credit. As Roth himself said, “I would have sued but it might have meant watching it.”

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