Great Films You Need To See – The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash (1978)

This is my latest contribution to The Big Picture, the internationally recognised website that shows film in a wider context. The Big Picture is running a series of features and reviews with the theme of ‘satire’. This piece is part of the site’s Lost Classics section (featuring in my list of Great Films You Need To See), in this case ex-Python Eric Idle’s music mockumentary The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash.

Hardly ones to take themselves too seriously, the Fab Four nevertheless provided the perfect foils for the grandfather of music mockumentaries.

While Spinal Tap took the formula to unparalleled heights, The Rutles set the ball rolling and remains an amusingly ramshackle spoof

While Spinal Tap took the formula to unparalleled heights, The Rutles set the ball rolling and remains an amusingly ramshackle spoof

Before This Is Spinal Tap (1984) there was The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash (1978), a Beatles parody given form partly thanks to its lead guitarist George Harrison.

Originally conceived as a throwaway sketch on Eric Idle’s post-Python BBC comedy series Rutland Weekend Television (1975-76), the skit took on a life of its own when it was shown on an episode of the long-running gag show Saturday Night Live that Idle was hosting.

Eric Idle's presenter in deep water in The Rutles

Eric Idle’s presenter in deep water in The Rutles

With Harrison’s encouragement, Idle’s partner-in-crime on Rutland Weekend Television Neil Innes knuckled down to turn what was an affectionate parody of A Hard Day’s Night into an alternative history of the world’s most successful and beloved band that spawned a whole new cinematic sub-genre.

Written by Idle and Innes, The Rutles charts the story of the Prefab Four – Dirk McQuickly (Idle), Ron Nasty (Innes), Stig O’Hara (Ricky Fataar) and Barry Wom (John Halsey) – from their humble Rutland roots to becoming “bigger than Rod [Stewart]” and creating “a musical legend that will last a lunchtime”.

The Rutles' take on I Am The Walrus, Piggy In The Middle

The Rutles’ take on I Am The Walrus, Piggy In The Middle

Modelled on the traditional to-camera documentary presenter style (Idle again), the film’s less-than-serious approach is apparent from the get go, with the former Python’s walk and talk becoming a sprint and gasp as the vehicle he’s following decides to hit the gas.

The presenter follows in the tight-trousered band’s footsteps from Der Rat Keller in Hamburg to the Ed Sullivan Show, Che Stadium (“named after the Cuban guerilla leader Che Stadium”), their spiritual quest to Bognor to meet Surrey mystic Arthur Sultan and Ron’s sit in the shower for peace with his soul mate Chastity (played by Gwen Taylor in a Nazi outfit in a hilariously near-the-knuckle mickey take of Yoko Ono).

Ron Nasty (Neil Innes) and partner Chastity (Gwen Taylor), aka Yoko Ono in The Rutles

Ron Nasty (Neil Innes) and partner Chastity (Gwen Taylor), aka Yoko Ono in The Rutles

The Beatles’ musical evolution is playfully parodied (Doubleback Alley is a take on Penny Lane; I Am The Walrus becomes the equally nonsensical Piggy In The Middle, among many others), while the band’s foray into the world of movies is also lampooned, with Ouch! a send-up of Help!; Yellow Submarine Sandwich (complete with surreal animation) and The Tragical History Tour, in which the Prefab Four play Oxford history professors going on a hitchhiking tour of tea shops in the Rutland area.

The SNL connection led to cameos from Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner and John Belushi, while Michael Palin appears in one the film’s most amusing scenes playing opposite Harrison’s silver-haired interviewer as Rutle Corps’ headquarters is plundered.

Ex-Beatle George Harrison interviews Rutle Corp press agent Eric Manchester (Michael Palin) in The Rutles

Ex-Beatle George Harrison interviews Rutle Corp press agent Eric Manchester (Michael Palin) in The Rutles

Roped in to give the film some extra fizz by Harrison, a game Mick Jagger and Paul Simon deliver old Rutles tales with admirable brio, probably because most of the stories they were telling were actually true and involved the Fab, rather than the Prefab, Four.

The Rutles adheres to the most important rule of mockumentaries, in that everyone plays it straight despite the silliness going on around them. It also helps that Innes’ songs are catchy in their own right and different enough from the originals so as not to sound like a carbon copy.

The Rutles go all showbiz

The Rutles go all showbiz

It’s a testament to the film’s legacy that not only did it influence Rob Reiner and Christopher Guest when approaching This Is Spinal Tap, but also remains both a cult favourite among as many Beatles fans as those who still follow The Rutles on their sporadic live tours.

While Spinal Tap took the formula to unparalleled heights, The Rutles set the ball rolling and remains an amusingly ramshackle spoof.

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Great Films You Need To See – Hardware (1990)

As part of the BFI’s Days of Fear and Wonder Sci-fi season, The Big Picture, the internationally recognised magazine and website that shows film in a wider context, is running a series of sci-fi-related features. My contribution is a piece about Richard Stanley’s cult 1990 sci-fi horror Hardware. It was written as part of The Big Picture’s Lost Classics strand, although I am including it within my list of Great Films You Need To See.

Richard Stanley’s grim and gory debut may never be counted among the greats of science fiction, but that hasn’t stopped it chiseling out a place among the affections of a loyal band of cult followers.

Richard Stanley would go on to direct one more feature, 1992's Dust Devil before slipping out of sight. It's a shame as the director of a film as demented and dynamic as Hardware deserved bette

Richard Stanley would go on to direct one more feature, 1992’s Dust Devil before slipping out of sight. It’s a shame as the director of a film as demented and dynamic as Hardware deserved bette

Squabbles over the rights to Hardware meant the only way to check it out for a good few years was through a less-than-ideal VHS copy and it wasn’t until 2009 that it finally made it onto DVD. The shenanigans surrounding the film following its modestly successful 1990 release have lent Hardware an edge in keeping with a down and dirty punk attitude.

A nomadic scavenger wanders the apocalyptic wastelands in Hardware

A nomadic scavenger wanders the apocalyptic wastelands in Hardware

Ex-soldier ‘Hard Mo’ Baxter (Dylan McDermott in one of his first starring roles) buys a nasty-looking robot head from a nomadic scavenger and gives it to his metal sculptor girlfriend Jill (Stacey Travis), not realising his gift has the ability to reassemble itself to become a machine whose only purpose is to kill.

Despite the meagre budget, Hardware‘s doom-laden industrial world, scarred by nuclear war and controlled by a government that isn’t exactly looking out for its citizens, is impressively realised on screen thanks to solid production design and vivid lighting (the heavy use of red throughout to symbolise the bloodbath that’s to come is especially evocative).

'Hard Mo' Baxter (Dylan McDermott) presents a gift of a robot head to girlfriend Jill (Stacey Travis) in Hardware

‘Hard Mo’ Baxter (Dylan McDermott) presents a gift of a robot head to girlfriend Jill (Stacey Travis) in Hardware

The killer robot premise is hardly original and the nods to genre stablemates The Terminator (1984) and Demon Seed (1977) are clear to see, but the film rises above the schlock-fest it could so easily have become thanks to the vision of its one-of-a-kind writer/director.

Stanley started work on the film in the immediate aftermath of a terrifying stint in war-ravaged Afghanistan where he had been making his documentary Voice Of The Moon. The horrors he no doubt witnessed are channelled into Hardware, particularly in the freakiness of the TV footage we get to see – grainy images of the Holocaust sitting alongside dystopian news footage, footage of thrash metal merchants Gwar and Robocop-style satirical adverts (“radiation free reindeer steaks”). As if that wasn’t enough, the robot head is painted with the Stars and Stripes to make a none-too-subtle observation about American imperialism.

The impassive killer robot in Hardware

The impassive killer robot in Hardware

He had originally intended to set the film in Britain, but decided to make the location non-specific following the addition of American leads at the studio’s insistence. It’s a smart move that works to the movie’s advantage as the multi-national flavour is entirely in keeping with the world created.

This being a killer robot movie, it’s necessary to buy in to threat posed by the machine and it’s here where Hardware amps up the gore. The scenes within Jill’s apartment, which take up a good chunk of the film’s running time, exude a real menace as the robot impassively goes after anyone it can.

'Hard Mo' Baxter (Dylan McDermott) with his robot hand in Hardware

‘Hard Mo’ Baxter (Dylan McDermott) with his robot hand in Hardware

While Simon Boswell’s soundtrack doesn’t do the film any favours, Stanley makes better use of musicians in other capacities, with Motörhead frontman Lemmy playing a taxi driver who recommends Motörhead’s Ace Of Spades to Mo; and Iggy Pop as DJ Angry Bob, “the guy with the industrial dick” whose at one point says: “As for the good news… there is no fucking good news! So let’s just play some music!”

Stanley would go on to direct one more feature, 1992’s Dust Devil before slipping out of sight. It’s a shame as the director of a film as demented and dynamic as Hardware deserved better.

Great Films You Need To See – Seconds (1966)

This is my latest contribution to The Big Picture, the internationally recognised magazine and website that shows film in a wider context. This piece about John Frankenheimer’s 1966 paranoid classic Seconds was written as part of The Big Picture’s Lost Classics strand, although I am including it within my list of Great Films You Need To See.

Paranoia is a commodity rich with cinematic potential, but few pictures have mined it with such bleak and powerful unease as Seconds (1966).

A work of cinema so far ahead of its time, Seconds is as topical now as ever has been

A work of cinema so far ahead of its time, Seconds is as topical now as ever has been

Ostensibly a work of science fiction, John Frankenheimer’s chilling dystopian nightmare addresses themes that, if anything, are more timely now than they were in the so-called Swinging Sixties.

Our fear of aging and irrelevance are front and centre in this adaptation of David Ely’s novel, as are themes of lost identity, unwitting conformity and a belief in the promise of self-entitlement sold by politicians and advertising firms.

Just one of the surreal images from John Frankenheimer's Seconds

Just one of the surreal images from John Frankenheimer’s Seconds

Seconds marked the final pessimistic entry in Frankenheimer’s unofficial ‘paranoia trilogy’ (after The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Seven Days In May (1964), but rather than reflect the growing political cynicism that was gripping a country still coming to terms with Kennedy’s assassination and the spiralling war in Vietnam, it instead highlighted the growing crisis of masculinity that was unfolding in lock step with the burgeoning feminist movement.

The man in question is Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph), a banker bored with his marriage, job and suburban existence who signs up (after some coercion) to the promise of a new life by a shadowy organisation referred to only as ‘the Company’. Following a faked death and extensive plastic surgery, Hamilton is ‘reborn’ as Antiochus Wilson (Rock Hudson), a successful artist living the American Dream. For all intents and purposes, Wilson can begin again; however, the one thing he can never change is himself.

Wilson (Rock Hudson) questions his identity in Seconds

Wilson (Rock Hudson) questions his identity in Seconds

Seconds grabs your attention from the moment Saul Bass’ surreal and unnerving title sequence kicks in with a series of distorted close-ups of a person’s face, accompanied by Jerry Goldsmith’s highly strung organ score.

The seeds of alarm sown by Bass bloom in the hands of James Wong Howe’s deliberately disquieting cinematography (the film’s sole Oscar nomination), which uses all manner of weird camera angles, extreme close-ups and tight tracking shots to keep the viewer on edge.

Hamilton (John Randolph) is 'reborn' in Seconds

Hamilton (John Randolph) is ‘reborn’ in Seconds

Meat is a notable theme, the meaning of which becomes clear as the film nears its climax. Hamilton is led through a slaughterhouse filled with carcases to attend  his rendezvous with the mysterious organisation, while in the film’s most blackly comic scene, chirpy Company salesman Mr Ruby (Jeff Greer) tucks into a crispy chicken dinner while explaining matter-of-factly the circumstances of Arther’s ‘death’.

Company employee Davalo (The Manchurian Candidate‘s Khigh Dhiegh) explains to Wilson: “You don’t have to prove anything anymore. You are accepted. You are alone in the world, absolved of any responsibility, except to your own interests.” The blank canvas we later see him staring at  in frustration in his beachside home suggests the interests he thought he had are just as fake as he is, however.

Wilson (Rock Hudson) comes full circle in Seconds

Wilson (Rock Hudson) comes full circle in Seconds

The point is underlined when he encounters the enigmatic Nora (Salome Jones), who describes Wilson as a “key still unturned” and urges him to throw off the shackles and embrace life. Wilson toys with the idea, but the straightjacket he’s sought to free himself from is tighter than he first thought.

Most commonly thought of as a leading man in frothy comedies, Hudson gives arguably his best performance as the tortured Wilson. It’s a canny bit of casting; Hudson was one of the world’s most desirable men at the time and the actor does an admirable job of undermining his pretty boy image, most notably in the shocking final scene.

The film’s influence can be seen in the likes of Total Recall (1990/2012) (based on Philip K Dick’s We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, also released in 1966), Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1984) and David Fincher’s The Game (1997), while its theme of masculine crisis is the driving force behind a string of serious television shows, from The Sopranos to Mad Men.

A work of cinema so far ahead of its time, Seconds is as topical now as ever has been.

Great Films You Need To See – Man Push Cart (2005)

This is my latest contribution to The Big Picture, the internationally recognised magazine and website that offers an intelligent take on cinema, focussing on how film affects our lives. This piece about Rahim Bahrani’s masterful 2005 debut Man Push Cart was written as part of The Big Picture’s Lost Classics strand, although I am including it within my list of Great Films You Need To See.

Few images more powerfully evoke the stark reality of 21st century city survival than the Sisyphean struggle of Pakistani immigrant Ahmad dragging his cart along the indifferent Manhattan streets in Rahim Bahrani’s mournfully poetic debut feature.

Man Push Cart remains an important milestone from a turbulent decade and marked itself out as the first words from a unique and exciting new voice in American cinema

Man Push Cart remains an important milestone from a turbulent decade and marked itself out as the first words from a unique and exciting new voice in American cinema

It’s an image Bahrani revisits throughout the extraordinary Man Push Cart (2005) as Ahmad (Ahmad Razvi) toils away day in and day out selling coffee and bagels from his push cart in the hope of affording a place in which he can live with his estranged son.

Bahrani isn’t interested in lecturing us about the plight of Asian immigrants in post 9/11 America or wailing against the world’s injustices; instead he casts a soft light on the invisible people who eke out a living on the fringes of first world society with a quiet dignity befitting of his protagonist.

Ahmad's (Ahmad Razvi) day begins - again - in Man Push Cart

Ahmad’s (Ahmad Razvi) day begins – again – in Man Push Cart

The Iranian-American director spent a year getting to know Razvi, who had been working as a push cart vendor for some time, before approaching him to star in their respective first features. The mutual trust that clearly developed over time reaps its reward as both director and actor mirror each other in their approach and let the natural drama of each scene play out.

Ahmad, we come to learn, is a former rock star in his native Pakistan living in the shadow of a recent tragedy that has left him grief-stricken and struggling to hold onto even the smallest dream. His life seemingly takes an upward turn when he forms a connection with young Spanish immigrant Noemi (Leticia Dolera) and befriends wealthy Pakistani businessman Mohammad (Charles Daniel Sandoval), who recognises Ahmad from his days as a minor celebrity and makes promises about getting him back in show business. However, in spite of the better life each option potentially presents, his past won’t let go that easily.

Ahmad (Ahmad Razvi) strikes up a connection with Noemi (Leticia Dolera) in Man Push Cart

Ahmad (Ahmad Razvi) strikes up a connection with Noemi (Leticia Dolera) in Man Push Cart

Bahrani uses a tight focus to reflect the lack of options Ahmad faces and adopts an unshowy, documentary-style approach that befits the performances.

The shadows of Ken Loach and Robert Bresson fall over the film (Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959) has been cited as an influence), while Ahmad’s quiet desperation reflects that of Antonio Ricci’s tragic protagonist in Vittorio De Sica‘s neo-realist classic Bicycle Thieves (1948).

Ahmad (Ahmad Razvi)'s Sisyphusian existence in Man Push Cart

Ahmad (Ahmad Razvi)’s Sisyphusian existence in Man Push Cart

Ahmad sees the cart as a means of escape from the desperate situation he finds himself in, although it’s difficult to get away from the impression that it more closely resembles a millstone that’s slowly dragging him further down.

Man Push Cart remains an important milestone from a turbulent decade and marked Bahrani out as a unique and exciting new voice in American cinema whom the late Roger Ebert hailed as “the new great American director”.

In the end, it’s that evocative image of Ahmad pulling his cart that lingers longest in the mind. Ahmad is our everyman and his struggle is universal.

Great Films You Need To See – Contact (1997)

This is my latest contribution to The Big Picture, the internationally recognised magazine and website that offers an intelligent take on cinema, focussing on how film affects our lives. This piece about Robert Zemeckis’s 1997 sci-fi classic Contact was written as part of The Big Picture’s Lost Classics strand, although I am including it within my list of Great Films You Need To See.

If they ever considered stopping by our planet, aliens should prepare themselves for a rough welcome if our exhaustive list of films featuring malevolent little green men is anything to go by.

Contact ultimately lets us decide for ourselves whether the mysterious signal is the work of an alien intelligence or not. It's a question really of how much you believe

Contact ultimately lets us decide for ourselves whether the mysterious signal is the work of an alien intelligence or not. It’s a question really of how much you believe

Aliens have been many things in the movies, but peaceful is rarely one of them. Even Steven Spielberg, who waved the flag for benevolent beings from outer space in Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977) and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), ended up making War Of The Worlds (2005). Needless to say, those guys weren’t interested in making music or phoning home.

Robert Zemeckis’ 1997 adaptation of cosmologist Carl Sagan’s novel Contact feels like a riposte to the biggest evil green men movie of them all, Independence Day, which had been released the previous year.

Jodie Foster stars as SETI radio astronomer Dr Ellie Arroway in Contact

Jodie Foster stars as SETI radio astronomer Dr Ellie Arroway in Contact

Ostensibly about the mystery that surrounds a signal of possibly alien origin detected by radio astronomer Dr Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster), Contact is more concerned with exploring the uneasy relationship that exists between religion, science and politics.

While James Woods’ National Security Advisor Michael Kitz represents the hawkish impulse of authority to control what isn’t fully understood; the push/pull connection shared between Ellie and Christian philosopher Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey) suggests that scientific conviction and religious certainty are two sides of the same coin.

Christian philosopher Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey) mulls over the role of God in all this in Contact

Christian philosopher Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey) mulls over the role of God in all this in Contact

Indeed, the genius of Contact is in the way its obsessive leading character finds herself acting increasingly on faith the closer she gets to discovering the ultimate truth behind what is, potentially, the greatest scientific breakthrough in human history.

Although she doesn’t believe in the afterlife, a revealing moment early on (following the extraordinary opening shot which pulls back from Earth to follow humanity’s radio broadcasts through the solar system, the Milky Way and beyond) comes when a young Ellie asks her father if they can contact her dead mother via radio. This is reflected later in the film when, following an apparent trip to the other side of the universe, she finds herself in heaven, for all intents and purposes.

The 'alien' machine is  made a reality in Contact

The ‘alien’ machine is made a reality in Contact

Foster is perfectly cast in the role of the dogged and inquisitive Ellie. Not everyone can carry off speeches that contain the words “Einstein Rosen Bridge” (aka wormhole) and Foster imbues her lines with a conviction that could have you fooled into thinking she’s Professor Brian Cox’s mentor.

While not the finished Oscar-winning item he would later become, McConaughey brings his good ol’ Southern charm to the role of Joss, who gets to present the other side of the argument without succumbing to Bible-thumping craziness (that role’s taken by Jake Busey’s wildly exaggerated preacher in one of the film’s only missteps).

Dr Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) prepares for the ultimate trip in Contact

Dr Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) prepares for the ultimate trip in Contact

After incorporating Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon into Forrest Gump (1994), Zemeckis went one better by interweaving footage of sitting US President Bill Clinton’s press conferences into the narrative of Contact.

It’s a gamble that works and adds an extra layer of authenticity to a film that never apologises for wanting to make you think, rather than suggesting you switch off your brain on the way in.

Contact ultimately lets us decide for ourselves whether the mysterious signal is the work of an alien intelligence or not. It’s a question really of how much you believe.