DVD Review

Hugh Hefner’s After Dark: Speaking Out in America (2019)

Written for RAF News May 2019

The late Hugh Hefner, whose well-timed death had him narrowly avoiding the Me Too movement, is the subject of a new documentary, or rather his late night talk show-come-entertainment showcase of the late 50s through to 1970.

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If one were not hip to the groove of this television show, or indeed Hef’s history of activism, they might think from the title that this is a scandalous tell-all. In actual fact, Hefner wasn’t always the bathrobed pensioner of his later years, he was among many things a smooth-talking host of dinner parties; a curator of comedy and musical talent spanning from folk to gospel.

Playboy’s Penthouse, the initial incarnation of the show, aired in 1959-60 before midnight. A formal affair, shot in black and white, Hefner greeted the audience as a party guest and welcomed them to observe intimate performances from legends such as Nina Simone and Nat ‘King’ Cole. It feels a little stiff and yet it plays as far less contrived than contemporary talk shows, with Hefner’s suave yet emotionless style sometimes offset by the wise-cracking of comedians such as Bob Newhart or Lenny Bruce.

As this documentary, which features Hefner himself as a talking head, makes clear – the mix of talent from different races was unprecedented. After the Second World War there was still a cultural separation, in places such as Georgia an enforced segregation. This show was an antidote to these beliefs, showing progressive ideals through its celebration of diverse music and giving a platform to much deserving artists.

The musical acts, which were political as a matter of cultural context, would remain political in the second version of the show Playboy After Dark, airing from 1969-1970. Once again bridging two decades, the show’s conversational segments would be transgressive, talking about social change, injustice and racism. Not shying away from controversial subjects but steering head-on into them, offering opinions on the ongoing Vietnam War for example.

Feeling a little like a ‘best of’ stitched together with interviews of featured musicians, the uniting theme of the subtitle is the championing of free speech, which remains as important now. Loosely made relevant with stock footage here and there, the archive footage speaks for itself. The film is worth watching just to witness icons sharing the same space, the same stage, and having their voices heard.

Wolf Warrior 2 (2017)

DVD Review – Written for RAF News February 2018

Returning from battle with his comrades ashes, Special Ops ‘Wolf Warrior’ Leng Feng discovers a real estate firm destroying his hometown. In the blink of an eye dozens of company goons wielding 2x4s have been floored and police have them surrounded. When Feng kicks the gun-toting ring leader 10ft into the air and through the windscreen of a police car, he is imprisoned in military jail for two years.

Once released, Feng finds himself in an unnamed African country where he establishes himself as man-of-the-people, offering aid to locals ravaged by a highly infectious disease and protecting them from a bloodthirsty militia. It seems they have teamed with some deadly Western mercenaries straight out of Street Fighter.

The driving force of the film is Wu Jing: the writer and director who also stars as borderline superhero Leng Feng. An embodiment of patriotism, Feng actually turns himself into a Chinese flag at one point, this despite being dishonourably discharged because: “Once a Wolf Warrior, always a Wolf Warrior.”

Now the second highest grossing film in China, this is a large scale production with sweeping shots of navy fleets and tanks being used for a demolition derby. There is a lot of sketchy if not passable CGI, but alongside practical effects and wire stunts that give some weight to action. These set pieces are built around a flurry of fast paced fight choreography devised by the same team behind John Wick and Atomic Blonde. Though intricate it never gets hung up on realism. The opening scene features an underwater fight scene that misunderstands gravity and overestimates lung capacity by some way, and yet this is what makes it enjoyable.

The attempts at humour and drama fall flat but form a necessary breather between gunfights and hand-to-hand combat, which is where all the fun is to be had.

Addendum:

Besides this, the message is one of frighteningly unambiguous nationalism. It reduces an entire continent to a land filled with savage militants and the helplessly impoverished – all ready to be protected by the Chinese military, crystallised in the form of one morally superior and high-roading motherfucker, so convinced of his invincibility that he rarely takes cover from gunfire and is able to catch an RPG with the wire frame of a mattress. This is a joke. A hugely expensive and highly profitable joke, that is only funny when it’s trying to be serious.

Broken Vows (2017)

DVD Review – Written for RAF News December 2017

Tara (Jamie Alexander) is on her bachelorette party when she catches the keen stare of a barman who insists they have a connection. Deciding to go back to his at the end of the night, she wakes to realise that this was a mistake: maybe the thought of her loving fiance back home, or more likely because the deranged one night stand has hand-washed her clothes and tattooed her name on his arm during the night.

Patrick, the easily infatuated barman, finds Tara’s phone in his house after she leaves. He uncovers the truth about her engagement and the wedding that is due to take place days from now. This does not appear to deter him though, as he uses information from her phone to find out where she lives and who she knows in order to find leverage to get them back together – nothing like a bit of classic romance.

Wes Bently so often plays dark and deranged characters that it suits him, but here his intensity comes out of nowhere. Patrick becomes obsessed with Tara in a matter of minutes, and even during this time he’s not treated particularly well. We learn a little about his past thanks to an unlikely PI but this raises many more questions. It’s hard to understand the motivation of anyone in the film. With strained dialogue and unnatural delivery, they never feel like real people.

Broken Vows harks back to 90s erotic thrillers but switches the gender of the adulterer and the stalker. It’s a classic ‘bunny boiler’ except it’s been put on a low heat so you’ll have to watch it gently simmer for the best part of an hour before anything thrillery happens. There are opportunities along the way, but they are lost to the momentum of an absurd story that could have been a lot more fun.

It Was 50 Years Ago Today! The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper & Beyond (2017)

DVD Review – Written for RAF News July 2017

There have been countless documentaries made about The Beatles. Martin Scorsese made a 3 and half hour film about George Harrison. George for fucksake. Ron Howard just released 8 Days A Week earlier this year, covering the US tour and Shea Stadium, and now It Was 50 Years Ago Today picks up in where Howard left off, though with a good half hour of overlap, focussing on the release of one of the most important albums of all time: Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band.

Sketch show Portlandia had an episode parodying this idea, based around Fred Armisan wanting to make a Beatles documentary despite their being so many already and not having the rights to play any of the music. This joke becomes reality in 50 Years as no music was cleared and so you have to put up with a smattering of bored and boring talking heads.

With so much ground covered over and again, the film focuses on a short period of time in the life of The Beatles and examines it in great detail – this it does to an extreme for better or worse. It looks at the context from which this groundbreaking record was birthed: a concept album fronted by alter-egos, influenced by psychedelia and Indian mysticism as well as a kind of carnivalesque surrealism – there’s a lot to unpack here, and yet it does this without ever playing any of the music.

There is a great deal about the development of the album’s style and sound, to a microscopic level in some respects. Presumably this documentary is made for those who have a fondness for The Beatles equal to the filmmaker, having memorised the catalogue and wanting some broader understanding or interesting trivia. There are some really interesting bits of information that root some of the iconic imagery – McCartney’s growing of a moustache to cover a broken tooth that he got from a motorbike crash, or Pete Best’s lending of his medals for the album cover shoot.

It begins with territory well trodden but steers it into the more obscure showing revelry for the bands abilities and achievements leading to Sgt Pepper. In surprising fairness though, it shows the group coming undone in it’s wake – trying to reach outside their grasp with an apparent naiveté, from wanting to run a fashion boutique to their own school.

Despite these efforts the documentary appears limited to those who already have an obsession with The Beatles and don’t mind hearing an album meticulously described without hearing so much as a note.

Taxi (1978 – 83)

DVD Review – Written for RAF News May 2016

When new hire Elaine (Marilu Henner) enters the grotty base of the Sunshine Cab Company in Taxi‘s first ever episode, she cuts to the heart of the atmosphere, asking why everyone here just a little angry.

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This small, tiny in the case of dispatcher Louie De Palma (Danny DeVito), but diverse group of part-time cabbies are united by their New Yorker attitudes, their sarcasm and bitterness, their incessant innuendos and quick-fire insults. Filmed in front of a live studio audience their constant quips keep the laughs coming, but the show never shied away from making a serious point, earning it the title of ‘morality play’.

Over it’s 5 series span in just as many years, Taxi would become iconic for it’s opening theme tune, it’s clownish character actors and its tendency to get a bit gushy at the end. Where Alex (Judd Hursch) would be seen as the fatherly figure of the group, the one true cabbie, episodes would often follow as he offered some of his learned wisdom to the others, or capping the show with a life lesson. But this sentiment could be found in the most cartoonish characters – the innocently idiotic foreign mechanic Latka (Andy Kaufman), lovable idiotic boxer Tony (Tony Danza), and joining from the second series the burnt out hippie and outright idiot Reverend Jim (Christopher Lloyd).

All the cast of the Sunshine Cab Company are larger than life, big voices with big gestures that really make the punchlines land. This is especially true for struggling actor Bobby (Kenickie himself, the late Jeff Conaway) and Devito’s Palma – who spends most of the show’s run in the dispatcher’s cage, where his petty tirades are delivered with such fury that it steals your attention, and though he is undeniably the most despicable character, he is hilarious and the centrepiece to the show.

A precursor to Cheers and even The Simpsons, Taxi is a time capsule of a sit-com, and of 70s New York, that can be reopened and revisited now that it is being released on DVD for the first time in the UK.

 

Against The Sun (2016)

DVD Review – Written for RAF News Feb 2016

Against the Sun tells the incredible true story of three US Navy airmen who were left stranded in the South Pacific near Japanese territory during WW2.

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Chief Harold Dixon (Garret Dillahunt, 12 Years a Slave), bombardier Tony Pastula (Tom Felton, The Harry Potter series) and radioman Gene Aldrich (Jake Abel) find themselves low on fuel and way off course, with no other option but to crash land their torpedo bomber into the ocean. It is only once they climb inside a life raft that they meet each other properly.

The remainder of the film takes place aboard this small but formidable life boat as the three men try to stay alive long enough to make it to shore. As it turns out the nearest islands are over 1000 miles away, which means weeks of travel if they can survive the journey. All of this they must do without food or water, without maps, flares or flashlights. If that wasn’t enough the two younger lads can’t swim and the waters are shark infested. The odds are stacked against them and yet the film maintains a tone of triumph, of sheer American optimism.

Remarkably similar to Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, the two films are different in scope and magnitude. Where Jolie’s dramatic story is on a much larger scale with glossy special effects, Against the Sun is stripped back to the bones. It is simple and unsensational by comparison – and more effective for it. But that’s not to say it’s too memorable either.

It feels as though there are countless missed opportunities to create tension but it holds its punches intentionally, even if the film suffers for it. This is a true story and measures are taken to capture the events accurately. On this small scale production the performances take focus and it is the dynamic between the minuscule cast that makes the film, but unfortunately the tone stays the same throughout – so while their story is unbelievable the film doesn’t do enough to leave a lasting impression.

Undercover Brother (2002)

DVD Review – Written for RAF News Nov 2015

Undercover Brother (Eddie Griffin) is a secret agent with soul, a superfly Austin Powers… Macy Gray with pork-chop sideburns.

Hired by an underground collective known as The Brotherhood, his mission is to find out why black military general and promising presidential candidate Warren Boutwell (Billy Dee Williams) has decided to drop out of the running and set up a chain of fried chicken restaurants.


Sharing a writer with Austin Powers you can see the similarity in the way that it plucks it’s sexually confident hero from a different time and uses him to parody a film genre, though change swinging 60s espionage for straight up 70s Blaxploitation – using music cues and editing to push home the point, much like the more recent Black Dynamite.

The film is full of one-liners, visual gags and slapstick – not leaving much room for anything else. It feels pieced together around a few sketches, but what it lacks elsewhere it makes up for in the sheer number of jokes so it doesn’t matter that they’re not all that funny.

The supporting cast all serve their purpose – Chris Katan as the villainous underling of The Man, Denise Richards as double agent White She Devil and fellow stand-up comedian Dave Chapelle as the stoner conspiracy theorist who finds racial arguments in a one word greeting. Everyone chips in with jokes but Griffin is the soul of the film and the funniest thing about it.

Undercover Brother is self-aware to the point of almost looking at the audience after each punchline (guilty of using a needle scratch multiple times). For the most part though it shows that the film is aware of it’s tackiness and embraces it as part of it’s tongue in cheek style. Overall it’s not great, a little dated but has style for sure.