Video Review: Wild Wild West, The Blair Witch Project, Go, Ravenous, Gormenghast

10 Minutes Too Long

(Originally published in TVS magazine, March 2000)

Last year may well be the turning point in the history of movies. With the exception of the over-hyped blot of the landscape that was The Phantom Menace, all the big films under-performed whilst crowds flocked to see low budget works of originality and quality, two things which resolutely can’t be produced on a studio executive’s PowerBook. As these films get their video releases, hindsight can provide a fascinating glimpse into what went right and wrong last year. Let’s start with the latter.

Wild Wild West (Warners, Rental) is awful, we all know that. But its awfulness is inherently fascinating. How did a summer blockbuster made by two people of proven record (Will Smith and director Barry Sonnenfeld) manage to crash and burn so spectacularly? It should have worked a treat: Western meets steampunk with shit loads of special effects, yet it is at turns uncomfortable, embarrassing, unfunny, daft and incoherent. And it could so easily have been great with very little tweaking indeed.

Like in Men in Black, Will Smith is an agent working for a secret government organisation that investigates strange goings on that are beyond his scientific ken. The idea of a black man in such a position at this time is, surprisingly, not shied away from, and the N word almost gets a mention until Smith silences the mentioner with a tasty right cross. This may be questionable but there’s so much else going on that is literally beyond belief.

Plausibility, even for movies set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, is all important. When sidekick Kevin Kline lashes up a flying machine, some years before the Wright Brothers hit on the idea, you can’t even shake your head, as the whole movie is a giant girder of anachronistic ridiculousness. This is one of those high budget monstrosities that got away from its maker; every scene has seemingly been told to do it again but make it bigger. Sonnenfeld was once an endearingly economic filmmaker who was quoted as saying that no film should be longer than 90 minutes. Wild Wild West is over 100.

It is a symbol of all that is bloated and downright shite about big budget Hollywood, especially in the light of last year’s successes. The Blair Witch Project (Fox Pathe, Rental) has already received more than enough coverage in this very organ, so it would be best just to dwell on the nature of its success. It was one of a number of films that reflected the public’s re-awakened interest in the ‘real’ – represented on TV by things like Police, Camera, Action and You’ve Been Framed – over the artifice of eye-popping yet hollow spectacles. There is a strong feeling of admiration, amongst public and critics alike, for films that have the confidence just to plonk the camera down and concentrate on things like acting and script. Go (Columbia Tristar, Rental) is a perfect example of one of last year’s trends; a subversive teenage film that actually contrives to be any good.

Unlike things like American Pie, Ten Things I Hate About You, Rushmore and Election, Go is not entirely original, being, as it is, a sort of junior Pulp Fiction. Three stories, all starting from a conversation in a supermarket, are played out in parallel, with Sarah Polley’s amateur drug dealing games followed by Desmond Askew (billed on the sleeve as ‘from TV’s Grange Hill’) having merry escapades in Las Vegas followed by gay actors Scott Wolf and Jay Mohr being forced into a bit of drug entrapment by very weird cop William Fichtner. As its title suggests, Go barely pauses for a second – not in a stunt-a-second way but in how much more inventive it can possibly get. Shorn of Tarantino’s longueurs it makes for a genuinely breathless ride of cinematic creativity.

What does all this mean for the future? As the Oscar nominations attest, there is a greater variety of films around at the moment with the major studios adopting the independent’s practice of quality as well as quantity. The British, as a result, are having their thunder stolen and being somewhat left behind. Ravenous (Fox Pathe, Rental), a tale of cannibalism starring Robert Carlyle, tries hard to be different but ultimately winds up ludicrous. Still, the British can always rely on TV. Gormenghast (BBC Video, Retail) is released this month in a splendid double video pack, and remains a risky but almost entirely successful attempt by the BBC do to something a bit different. One lesson they must learn, though: there is such a thing as over-publicising something.

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About klausjoynson
I'm a writer, editor, musician, DJ and cartoonist. Contact me at: klausjoynson(at)gmail.com or follow me on Twitter: @KlausJoynson

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