‘The Last American Virgin’ (1982) review

Cult Israeli coming-of-age film Lemon Popsicle gets its Western remake released to a new generation as The Last American Virgin is now available on Blu-ray and DVD for the first time in the UK. Heartache, embarrassment, competition and friendship all set to tunes of the 80s, American Virgin is your predictable teen movie fare, but still manages to find ways to charm its audience.

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Three friends (played by Lawrence Monoson, Joe Rubbo and Steve Antin) find out growing up is, of course, not easy as they navigate their way through an array of sexual encounters, drugs, parties, school and friendly rivalries. It’s nothing that hasn’t been seen before, or since, but still manages to be effective thanks to its cast, mainly Lawrence as sensitive lead Gary and Diane Franklin as the object of affection Karen, and its depiction of the consequences of casual unprotected sex and the ‘glamour’ of paid sex. Other than that, it’s your typical teenage experience staples, although by the time the end scene rolls on I defy many to not feel a slight pang of sadness in mutual feeling.

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Credit where credit is due, Arrow have put some excellent and extensive interviews together as part of the extras side of the home release package. There’s a real in-depth and personal feature with director Boaz Davidson who discusses in detail the process of updating and translating his Israeli original for a new audience, the production of American Virgin itself and his personal experiences that went on to influence the films. Also quite fun to watch are the two interviews with leads Lawrence Monoson and Diane Franklin who open up about the film, its affect on their careers and the cult appeal that surrounds the 80s picture. All rather frank and honest, it’s refreshing to hear those involved wax lyrical about their work with no boundaries or sugar-coating.  A worthy release of a good, if not dated, feature that’s worth picking up.

Thor: The Dark World review

Another month, another Marvel movie. Funny how quickly one can get jaded to incredible characters carrying out unbelievable feats of heroism and daring. Still, of all the comic heroes brought to the cinema screen by Marvel Studios so far, Thor seems the most unlikely candidate for a movie, let alone a sequel. Even as a comic-obsessed kid, the character always seemed dull and ridiculous to me; the naff costume, the cod-Shakespearian dialogue, the endless Norse mythological waffle, so at odds with Marvel’s more grounded, street-level creations.

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So how do you turn Thor into a film franchise? Not having seen the first instalment, I have no idea how this compares, but apparently by aping Mike Hodges’ bombastic Flash Gordon (albeit with the camp factor heavily dialled down). A bizarre hodge-podge of science fiction and swords and sorcery? Check. Tacky, wacky production design? Check. Stolid blond hero? Check. A roll-call of English thesps hamming it in supporting roles? Check.  (The only thing missing is the Queen soundtrack,sadly.)

Is it as much of a guilty pleasure? Not really. Admittedly Marvel have this kind of thing down to a fairly fine art by now, and the preview audience I saw it with laughed and applauded in all the places that a marketing exec might hope a preview audience would. And there are some decent gags along the way; most likely added via an uncredited script polish by Joss Whedon (nothing to compare with the ‘puny god’ moment from The Avengers, but doubtless he’s saving his best material for the sequel). There are also some less decent gags involving Stellan Skarsgard losing his trousers every five minutes that might have been the result of an additional polish by legendary English farcester Ray Cooney, but maybe everyone else was busy on the Captain America sequel.

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However, it all feels so familiar. With over 50 years of comics history to draw upon, why does every Marvel movie seemingly revolve around a villain discovering yet another Device That Will End The Universe and ripping a big hole in the sky? What originally gave Marvel comics their edge was the fact that these were superheroes who had the same problems as the rest of us; meeting girls, passing exams, paying their rent on time. Yes, there were massive fights and thrilling heroics and awesome spectacle, but it was all rooted in whether Peter Parker was going to get a date, or if the Fantastic Four were going to be evicted from the Baxter Building because Doctor Doom smashed all the windows. Thor gets some mileage from the fact that the titular character is apparently two years late for his date with Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster, but beyond that the only interest in actual humanity it shows is in a secondary romantic subplot that seems lifted from a bad (is there any other kind?) Richard Curtis film.

There is fun to be had around the margins, with colourful supporting turns from Kat Dennings, Rene Russo and the ever-reliable Tom Hiddleston as Loki. But Chris Hemsworth’s Thor does nothing but play dutifully dull straight man, Anthony Hopkins makes yet another payment on his pension plan, Natalie Portman must be wondering how she stumbled into another boring girlfriend part after the horrors of the Star Wars prequels, and poor Christopher Eccleston has possibly the most thankless role of his career as the villain Malekith, unrecognisable under prosthetics and saddled with sub-Tolkien Elvish dialogue to spout dramatically at every turn. Seriously, Hiddleston’s Loki isn’t even the villain in this film, so how does he still get all the scene-stealing lines and moments whilst Eccleston gets nothing but subtitled exposition and a 7-foot tall CGI henchman?

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No doubt Thor: The Dark World will go on to make several hundred million dollars and pave the way for yet another bout of fraternal squabbling with his badly behaved sibling (the last scene is a shameless sequel hook, and the credits offer a Bond-style promise that ‘Thor will return’). But as much as Marvel undoubtedly know their market, it does feel as though familiarity will soon give way to contempt, and that it could be time to start ringing some changes and taking a few risks with their undoubtedly rich stable of characters. Otherwise Ragnarok might be coming around a lot sooner than the company accountants would hope.

Creepshow (1982) Reviewed

Thirty years after it’s original release, George Romero‘s ‘Creepshow‘ is still a deliciously dark anthology full of macabre tales and comic dark humour. With a new Blu-Ray release thanks to Second Sight, the feature is as bright and bold as ever, with its comic book style aesthetics perfectly captured on screen.

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Written by Stephen King and starring a whole host of familiar names and faces from across cinema and genre film, ‘Creepshow‘ is one of those special films that transcends all ages. Whilst there are some rather dark moments, the film is essentially for both kids and adults, with the slapstick comedy and childlike escaping-reality-for-fantasy comic stories coming to like being the appeal for youngsters. Adults will no doubt like the, sometimes, very comedic touches that come out of the darkest parts of the stories. Revenge, monsters, murder, bad dancing (yes Ed Harris, you are most definitely guilty of this), it’s all there, with literally something for everyone in the form of fears, terror, phobias and characters like the excessive drunk, manipulative colleague, jilted lover and oppressive family members.

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If you’ve never seen the feature, or want to upgrade your DVD to high definition format, now is the time. The transfer looks positively stunning. Not only is the picture quality terrific but it enhances the entire experience. The colours of the comic style that the films homages are once again bright and sickly with Tom Savini‘s special effects looking devilishly beautiful. Whether it be your first time or a revisit, alone or with company, ‘Creepshow‘ is the way to go. They just don’t make anthology films like it anymore.

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Creepshow is out from Second Sight on 28th October, just in time for Hallowe’en, pre-order it here

Sharknado – The Spinning Terror

Brendan tried to avoid the treacherous waters, but no luck, they came to land to find him.  

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Jaws is correctly revered as a classic of the disaster/horror movie genre and rightly credited as the first high concept blockbuster movie. Jaws’ singular premise – a giant monster shark – that neatly translated into one single marketing image, and transformed the way in which films were made and sold in Hollywood to this day.

No one who was certifiably sane would say that Sharknado is destined to have the same homunculus impact on the world of modern filmmaking. However, it is undoubtedly a high concept project (sharks meet tornadoes), it is undoubtedly a disaster film and it has undoubtedly achieved a new and very modern type of success with contemporary audiences.

After amassing several million views on YouTube for it’s trailer, Sharknado’s premier on the Syfy channel accomplished something unprecedented for a made for TV movie by becoming a trending topic on Twitter. Websites and blogs have since collated the best and most amusing of Sharknado’s tweets, while the wave of social media interest in the film secured a limited US theatrical run, again another first for a “Syfy original film”.

Sharknado is a slick example of how low budget filmmaking can leverage social media platforms to generate positive word of mouth and reach new, incremental audiences. The problem for some critics with Sharknado, however, is the nature of the film itself.

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The premise of Sharknado doesn’t require much in the way of thought or explanation. A waterspout brings all manner of man eating sharks in-land to downtown LA, where they wreak all kind of havoc on an assorted cast of b-movie actors. Interestingly this ensemble includes the semi-credible presence of John Heard, he of The Sopranos (Ed: or for our purposes – Cutter’s Way, CHUD and Cat People etc)  and other far more legitimate screen roles. One can only assume John badly needs a paycheck right now.

It is willfully silly, escapist nonsense that pays homage to a host of cheesy pop culture references. The issue and where Sharknado proves to be so divisive, is that it is a project that is designed to be mocked. Unlike say the efforts of Ed Wood or Tommy Wiseau or even some of the movies distributed by Lloyd Kaufman, the makers of Sharknado certainly have no artistic hubris about the highfalutin merit of their work.

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That’s not to say Sharknado is a bad film as such. For my sins I actually enjoyed it. Honest. Production values are better than expected, pacing and narrative move quickly enough and among its truly memorable sequences is the sight of Ian Ziering first being swallowed whole by a badly rendered, flying CGI shark only to then see him cut himself out with a chainsaw and simultaneously rescue his love interest (Cassie Scerbo) from inside the same creature! Wow. Intense.

Sharknado is terrible, self consciously cheesy, deliberately camp fun brought to life purely for the commercial gain of the backers and producers at the Syfi channel. It’s safe to say that with Sharknado, the sharks of this film are not just limited to those in front of the camera lens.

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Sharknado is out on 7th October

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Are we there yet…? The Last Exorcism: Part II

The ever daring Brendan Patterson, once again dives into the unknown, braving the twisted demons of The Last Exorcism: Part II.  

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I’ve not seen the original Last Exorcism but in the research that I conducted before settling down to watch its absurdly entitled sequel, I learned that it took a “new” spin on the now hackneyed exorcism sub-genre by using the now hackneyed “found footage” approach to filmmaking.

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Audiences expecting the same for Part 2 are going to be disappointed. The sequel abandons any such similar aesthetic traits, opting for a far more conventional, classic narrative setting and structure. Opening credits notwithstanding, which are melange of home movies, news reports and other gumpf which allude to the first entry in this ongoing movie franchise.

It’s not just the same stylistic composition that the Last Exorcism Part II ejects, however, as for the next 90 minutes any sense of continuity from the original film are gone too. Instead we pick up with sole survivor Nell (Ashley Bell) trying to remember just what in the name of Lord Satan happened in the first film while putting her life back together in some hick town in the US.

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The really bad news for Nell is that Beelzebub (aka Abalam) is back and has all manner of horrid back bending, spine cracking contortionism and general evil soul-sucking possession in mind for her all over again. Plus a few new tricks up his old demonic sleeve.

The interminably dull build up to the satanic denouement of the Last Exorcism Part II includes some especially below par PG13 related scares, even in what is billed as its “uncut extended edition” on home dvd and bluray.

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Obviously I’m taking these out of context but they include: the terror of a talking vacuum cleaner, the sight of Nell being harassed by a living statue performer during a costume ball (yikes!), a trip to the zoo where an irate gorilla flings a tyre in her general direction and a nuisance dog that woofs loudly on her way to work as a chambermaid. Yes things really get that “scaremongus”.

Overall, LEP2 feels distinctly less like The Exorcist or any of the slew of imitators and is more reminiscent of Carnival of Souls where poor, doomed Candace Hilligoss wanders seemingly out of step with the world around her while menaced by sinister dark forces. But whereas Herk Harvey’s 1962 masterpiece had atmosphere in abundance, Last Exorcism Part II feels bland, contrived and ultimately does little to create any emotional empathy for its tortured female protagonist.

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The two things I dislike most about this movie are:

1) It might actually play quite well to some God fearing Americans, somewhere in the Bible Belt who may or may not believe in the efficacy of exorcisms and their own ability and need to perform one on a family member, friend or pet animal

2) The anti-climactic finale where Nell is transmogrified into a possessed Carrie clone while simultaneously paving the way presumably for The Last Exorcism Part 3. Yet another sequel in this franchise? Now that is a truly ridiculous and actually quite frightening proposition.

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Last Exorcism: Part II is out on Monday, 30th September

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Roger Corman’s ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ (1960)

Back in 1960, American International Pictures took a gamble. Known for making low-budget black and white features to use in double bills, the company decided to make a larger budgeted colour film when they feared the market for the former was declining. The result was The Fall of the House of Usher (also known as the truncated House of Usher), scripted by Richard Matheson and the first in what would become a series of eight films that director Roger Corman would helm based on the work of author Edgar Allan Poe. Thanks to the lovely folk at Arrow, the film received its UK Blu-ray debut last month. And boy is it pretty.

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Usher tells the tale of a young Philip Winthrop (a slightly wooden Mark Damon) who travels to the desolate Usher mansion to visit his fiance Madeline Usher (a beautiful and eerie Myrna Fahey). There he meets Madeline’s brother Roderick (Vincent Price), who is opposed to idea of their union, believing that the Usher bloodline is cursed by some madness that will only continue if Madeline and Philip get married. Desperate to take her away from her brother, Philip manages to persuade Madeline to leave with him, but will Roderick, or the Usher mansion itself, let them?

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The film is a great watch, a slow burning tale of madness focusing of psychological decline and the influence of environments. The star is, of course, Vincent Price but the mansion itself gives its human cast a run for their money. Price might come across as a little camp in his portrayal but when faced with the force of the house’s presence, it’s a perfect fit. Thanks to the transfer that Arrow have released (taken from a restoration done by MGM), the mansions madness has never felt more real or looked so stunning. The colours are rich and, at times, sickly, the fog in the desolate swap that surrounds the property is more uninviting and foreboding and the large crack in the mansion’s wall casts a greater shadow over the players than ever before. Simply put, it brings the house back to life, cementing it as the real villain of the picture. One even had to remind themselves that Corman made the film on a $300,000 budget; the film here looks more lavish than any version I have watched previously, a testament to Corman’s, now well-known, ability to deliver well crafted films within monetary constraints.

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If the quality and beauty of the films transfer aren’t enough to make you part with your cash, then the extras certainly should. All are worthy of their long running time; in-depth analysis and anecdotal history of various departments and the film’s production proving very informative. There are two brilliant interviews, one with director Joe Dante and one with horror expert Jonathan Rigby, which provide the most insight (covering everything from novel to film comparison, costume, set design, production history, score) and are well worth buying the release for. Also included is a great video essay exploring the film’s relationship to Poe’s original short story and a nice little archival interview with Price which shows him to be friendly, engaging, funny and polite. An audio commentary by Corman and collector’s booklet provide the standard extras that audiences expect from Arrow releases.

I’ve seen some who have argued that it’s not the most deserving of the Poe/Corman cycle to be released first but its a wonderful start, and a most deserving way to spend your cash and update your Blu-ray collection.