Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
"LAST OF THE MONSTER KIDS" - Available Now on the Amazon Kindle Marketplace!

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Director Report Card: Edgar Wright (1995)

Here's a potentially stupid thing I'm going to say: Edgar Wright is the successor to Quentin Tarantino's movie nerd throne. It's a stupid statement for many reasons but mostly because the two directors' make very different films. However, Wright's obvious love of cinema and his ability to remix and combine those influences into something new and energetic is comparable. Wright is one of the most reliable cult filmmakers of the day. His movies are incredibly smart, meticulously detailed, and build most of their humor upon solid character work. That I'm a big fan of the guy should be no surprise. As much as it pains me, I'll be excluding Wright's TV work because I don't usually talk about TV here. The blog is Film Thoughts after all. However, I was able to track down a copy of Wright's rare debut film, which opens the Report Card.

1. A Fistful of Fingers

To us nerds here in North America, it seemed like Edgar Wright emerged out of nowhere with “Shaun of the Dead,” a critically acclaimed film that is rightfully beloved by most everyone. To fans of British television, Wright wasn’t an entirely unknown name. “Spaced,” the TV series precursor to the Cornetto Trilogy, had a following. Wright had done even more work in British comedy before that. Yet even this wasn’t the beginning of his career. Wright had been making movies since he was a kid. His feature debut was a shot-on-16mm parody of westerns called “A Fistful of Fingers,” made in 1995 with friends and for next-to-no money. Never given a proper release and still obscure to this day, the film is nevertheless interesting as a display for Wright’s developing skills.

In the days of the wild west, a stranger wanders into town. Calling himself the Man with No Name, he seeks a bounty on the town’s most wanted fugitive, the Squint. The first confrontation with the Squint leaves No-Name’s beloved horse dead. Teaming up with an Indian named Running Sore, he seeks out the villain. It’s not quite simple, as the bad guy has a whole den of villainy backing him.

It’s must be made clear. “A Fistful of Fingers” was a low budget production. “No-budget production” might be an more apt description. The film was basically a college student film and was made with all the money that implies. Accordingly, the production values were practically non-existent. The film was shot on 16mm and there's been zero restoration, so the colors are washed out and the picture quality is grainy. Most of the movie takes place in a forest while the sets are dingy empty buildings. The actors are all non-professionals. If you go into “A Fistful of Fingers” expecting it to look like a Hollywood movie, you’ll be disappointed.

Even though it was only his first feature, “A Fistful of Fingers” still shows Edgar Wright as a knowledgeable student of film. From the title alone, it’s apparent that Wright is making a loving parody of the films of Sergio Leone. The lead character dresses like Clint Eastwood. One sequence parodies the infamous television opening of “A Fistful of Dollars,” with the bounty hunter confronting the town legislator. The last act features a hilarious riff on the ending of “Once Upon a Time in the West.” A hidden treasure references “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” Though he was just getting started, the director proves that he wouldn’t be making fun of these things unless he loved them.

As a parody, “A Fistful of Fingers” is surprisingly funny. The film is full of inspired gags. The quick-tempered nature of the western protagonists is mocked, with the character’s tendency to punch down people who seem to insult him. A bar full of low-lifes and thugs freezes when the main character is inside it. The edge of a cliff is marked with a sign reading “Edge of Cliff.” (It’s followed by a sign that reads “Edge of Frame.”) People flee when the hero rides into town, knowing that trouble is coming. Both the hero and the villain claim to have killed over four thousand people. The hero encounters a mysterious gun-fighter that does nothing but stand and glare. The Man with no Name reveals his true name as… Walter. Moments like these and more show the film’s irrelevant approach to the western genre.

And then there are gags that are just plain silly. When the hero chases the villain, he drops a banana peel. The Man with No Name leaps dramatically over the peel. While talking to the robotic bar tender, a hand pushes a can of Coke into frame. During the middle of a gun fight, after emptying his revolver of bullets, a gunfighter pulls out a modern pistol. The gun-fighter’s morning routine is interrupted, causing him to shave while being pursued by an attacker. After bouncing a bullet off a pail, a group of soccer players leap out to encourage the hero. My favorite of the movie’s many goofball gags is the love affair between the hero and his horse. After the horse dies, leaping off a cliff after a carrot, there’s a brief musical interlude, showing the cowboy’s love affair with the horse. Also of note is that all the movie’s horses are played by inflatable props, with realistic sound effects play overhead.

Just for the hell of it, the movie even throws in a few animated sequences. In a pitch-perfect parody of “A Fistful of Dollars,” the movie begins with animated credits. Against a red background, we see a black silhouette of the hero murder an entire town full of bandits. Midway through the film, the Indian sidekick delivers some backstory about his tribe. Suddenly, paintings on a wall leap to life. One tribe slaughters another in comical fashion. For one example, an arrow pushes some dentures through someone’s face. While the sequence doesn’t add much to the movie, it shows “A Fistful of Fingers” was willing to experiment with all types of film making. The animation is pretty good, all things considered, too.

Befitting a broad parody like this, there are many meta gags in “A Fistful of Fingers.” At one point, while wandering through the forest, the hero and his sidekick are joined by the boom mic operator. The gun fire sound effects ramp up even more, each bullet sounding like a small explosion. The movie fulfills the promise of its title near the end, when the characters duel with middle fingers. After saving the day, the gang of heroes are presented with a televised award presenter, which may be a reference to some British TV show I don’t recognized. The meta gags tend to be less amusing but “A Fistful of Fingers” keeps a tradition, one that dates back to at least “Blazing Saddles,” alive.

One of the rules of a parody is that it carpet-bombs the audience with gags. Not every gag is going to land but, don’t worry, another one will be around soon. Accordingly, there are a few jokes in “A Fistful of Fingers” that drag. A long sequence has the main duo being blocked by an Indian mystic. He says “None shall pass” but, it’s soon revealed, actually means “Nun shall pass.” Cue comical cross-dressing on the heroes' behalves. This leads into the men being picked up by a pair of clueless rednecks, an especially long-winded scene. There’s a rather uncomfortable joke about the Indian sidekick romantically hitting on the male hero. The end features the Man with No Name stripped nude by bullets, which seems to hope the “Naked people are funny!” troupe will be enough. While the film has dead spots, “A Fistful of Fingers” is amusing more often then not.

The cast in “A Fistful of Fingers” is strictly non-professional. Some of the performers are better then others. Graham Low as Walter the gun-fighter has better-then-average comedic timing. He does a good job of copying Eastwood’s whispered growl while maintaining a goofy edge. Martin Curtis as the Indian sidekick is more subdued. Its hard to tell if he’s just really committed to his Tonto-style character or if he’s merely a flat actor. Oliver Evans is mildly amusing as the Squint, mostly playing it straight as the film’s absurd villain. Though there are many other names in the cast, all the others are bit parts. It’s honestly impressive that Edgar Wright was able to get this many people together for such a tiny production. (By the way, the director has a cameo himself, where he is quickly shot.)

“A Fistful of Fingers” apparently originated as a short film. Like many expansions of shorts, the film awkwardly pads the story out to feature length. Even at only 78 minutes long, the movie drags at times. The middle third of the film is mostly devoted to the main characters wandering around a forest. An entirely new character is introduced who contributes nothing to the plot. This may very well be the joke but I’m still not sure why he’s there. For a while, the movie becomes three characters in search of the plot. “A Fistful of Fingers” never quite comes to a halt. However, it’s clear that the director was stretching thin material out to be longer.

When watching the obscure debuts of famous directors, one is always on the look-out for his emerging stylistic trademarks. The comedic quick-cutting that would define Wright’s later work appears in its infancy. The camera will quickly ricochet between character’s faces, usually to indicate they’ve just fired their guns. One moment switches between people’s heads as the hero delivers an insult to all of them. It’s evident that Wright was aiming for a specific style. You can see the thinnest outline of what would become his brand. It’s also clear that he wasn’t quite able to make it work yet. Whether this is due to a lack of money or skill is hard to say.

“A Fistful of Fingers” is probably a lot better then you’d expect a quasi-student film to be. As a spoof, it obviously knows its target. The laughs come quickly and loudly for the first half-hour. After that, the film starts to stumble a little, as the pace slows. However, the jokes are still there, up until the end. His skills were still growing but the sense of humor and stylistic choices that characterize Edgar Wright’s later film are present, even at the beginning. The result is an uneven but mostly funny bit of silliness which fans will surely enjoy. [Grade: B-]

No comments: