Tuesday, 31 December 2019

LIST: THE WORST FILMS OF 2019

I probably dodged a lot of bullets in 2019 by seeing fewer films than usual. Still picked up a few flesh wounds though...

[5] SERENITY
All-star reality-bending nonsense whose final twist is a throw-something-at-the-TV-in-disgust moment that would have been only slightly less stupid if Matthew McConaughey had suddenly woken up and It Had All Been A Dream.

[4] ONCE UPON A TIME IN LONDON
London gangster non-epic that wants to be Goodfellas and absolutely isn't. Every single one of the unloveable, unlikeable, deeply unsympathetic and charmless characters can go die in a skip. It's tiresome, it's tedious, and it goes on for ever.

[3] IN FABRIC
Peter Strickland continues to make films that I don't like, or at the very least don't get. As far as cursed red dress movies go, this isn't as good as Tobe Hooper's I'm Dangerous Tonight, and that was piffle. This is arty toss of the worst kind.

[2] NIGHT HUNTER
What possessed Henry Cavill, after three Superman movies and a high-profile villain turn in the last Mission Impossible, to play a slobby cop-on-the-edge in a sleazy abduction psycho thriller with a crashingly obvious twist? Money? Ben Kingsley, Alexandra Daddario and Stanley Tucci also need to look deep into their souls and ask why.

[1] CRUCIBLE OF THE VAMPIRE
Borderline unwatchable amateur-night horror that underwhelms on all fronts, mysteriously granted a (probably tiny) cinema release before its rightful home on Tesco's bargain racks and selected branches of Cash Converters. With Neil Morrissey.

Dishonourable mentions: High Life, Lords Of Chaos, Tales From The Lodge, Midway, Hustles.

LIST: THE BEST FILMS OF 2019

This is a much shorter list than usual. For various reasons I haven't seen anywhere near as many new movies this year - only 93 of the films that got a theatrical release in 2019, and not all of them in cinemas anyway - so I'm restricting myself to a Top Five rather than the traditional Ten and including a bunch of movies that are only there because there's not a lot to pick from. Maybe 2020 will be better.

As usual, this only includes films given a theatrical release in 2019 according to the FDA's website; films shown only at FrightFest (such as Feedback, The Drone and Rabid) don't count; films released in 2018 that I didn't see until 2019 (such as Aquaman) don't count. They do count if they were shown in regular cinemas in 2019 but I missed them and caught up with them on DVD later.

[5] SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK
Creepy, thoroughly engaging, visually striking and some terrific monster designs; one of my favourite horror movies of the year and a FrightFest highpoint. More of this sort of thing please.

[4] FAST & FURIOUS: HOBBS & SHAW
I laughed a lot: Johnson and Statham's alpha banter is hilarious throughout and the film delivers on the full-throttle slam-bang idiocy we've come to expect from the F+F franchise. The action hit of the year for me.

[3] LE MANS '66
More car stuff, but more measured, more character-based, with gorgeous period production design and the best racetrack action since Rush, and Bale is terrific. Could have done with ten minutes lopped off the end, though; it should have concluded with the victory.

[2] STAN AND OLLIE
The first film I saw in cinemas this year and it never moved far from the top of the list: joyous, perfect leads, impeccably done.

[1] ONE CUT OF THE DEAD
The Noises Off of zombie cinema is an absolute gem. Not just for its astonishing 45-minute single-take opening of a terrible zombie film, but the behind-the-scenes joy at seeing all the jokes fall into place to explain how and why it was so terrible. An exhilarating work of meta genius.

A few honourable mentions: Official Secrets, Destroyer, Zombieland: Double Tap, Happy Death Day 2U (shut up, I liked it), Godzilla: King Of The Monsters, Toy Story 4, 21 Bridges.

Sunday, 22 December 2019

BLACK CHRISTMAS / BLACK CHRISTMAS / BLACK CHRISTMAS

CONTAINS SPOILERS CONTAINS SPOILERS CONTAINS SPOILERS

Really? Another Black Christmas? Well, yes, although it's actually nothing to do with either the 1974 film or the 2006 remake, just an entirely unrelated story given a familiar title - and if I'd known that before, I probably wouldn't have bothered rewatching those two earlier films in preparation.

Bob Clark's Black Christmas is probably the first teen slasher movie proper, dating from 1974 (the same year as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but it predates Halloween by four years and the first Friday The 13th by six) and certainly one that boasts a lot of what would later be the over-familiar tropes and cliches of scores of cheap teenkill quickies. It's just coming up to Christmas and most of the college housemates are either planning to leave for the holidays or staying over in the sorority house, but it's not long before People Start Disappearing. Does it have anything to do with the Obscene Phone Calls? Are the calls actually Coming From Inside The House? Is there Something Spooky In The Attic?

This is the third of Bob Clark's horror films, after Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things and the rather good Dead Of Night, and I was never much of a fan of it but at least it's cruel and nasty. By later slasher standards it's actually quite restrained, concentrating on quiet atmosphere rather than loud shock, and with some respectable names in the cast including Olivia Hussey and Margot Kidder among the girls, Keir Dullea as a ludicrously creepy boyfriend and obvious suspect, and the great John Saxon as the cop on the case. It's not actually much fun (though the later payoff to Kidder's fellatio prank is hilarious), generally playing things pretty serious, responsible and grown-up rather than going for the traditional sex-and-booze teenage co-ed antics.

Oddly, the 1974 film still carries an 18 certificate, probably for its aggressive use of the C-word in the obscene phone calls. By contrast, Glen Morgan's 2006 Black Christmas gets away with a mere 15 despite racking up much more gore, violence, sleaze and depravity, with incest, cannibalism and gouged eyeballs to perversely satisfying levels. It takes Billy and Agnes, two random names included in the first film's threatening phone calls, develops them into a complete backstory and shuffles them into all the first film's tropes, along with Maniac Escapes From Local Asylum, Douchebag Boyfriend's Secret Sex Tape, The Killer's POV Of Girl In Shower and a final rendition of The Killer Isn't Dead After All. This, frankly is much more fun on a dumb popcorn level even though it's far sillier, has too many characters getting offed and is as stuffed with cliches and familiar moments as it is; I have always had a soft spot for it that I'll accept it doesn't entirely deserve.

Sophia Takal's 2019 horror Black Christmas is [1] nothing to do with Black Christmas 1974, [2] nothing to do with Black Christmas 2006, and [3] pants. Dispensing entirely with Billy and Agnes, it's a clunky hashtag drama with nonsensical supernatural overtones and a plot that makes even less sense than the 2006 film. Again it's the last week before Christmas break at the upmarket and very expensive Nathaniel Hawthorne College (named for its occultist and colossally misogynist founder) where sexual assault victim Imogen Poots and her sorority sisters find themselves up against the elitist sexual predator fraternity possessed by the undead spirit of Hawthorne. Cue hooded cult members wielding crossbows, insufficient splatter due to the demands of the PG13 rating, and fierce arguments of sexual (and to a lesser extent racial) politics between #MeToo and #NotAllMen so clumsily shoehorned into it that it sometimes feels less a horror movie with a contemporary and relevant subtext, than a preachy feminist drama with a few killings dotted through it - a pity, since the opening stalk-and-slash sequence is actually quite nicely done.

This one is bland and soft, a crustless lettuce sandwich of a film, and its villains are so obviously the chiselled male models of Alpha Alpha Alpha that it's almost surprising that that's exactly who they are, and the climactic free-for-all is just a mess. I wanted to like it (obviously; why wouldn't I?) but aside from a few nicely handled moments it's entirely unremarkable and hardly worth the hassle of going to the cinema for; DVD is really its natural home. Disappointing.

**
***
**

Friday, 1 November 2019

DOCTOR SLEEP

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS

The worst thing you can come out of a cinema thinking isn't "that was absolutely awful, complete waste of time, utter rubbish". Rather, it's "well, it's okay, I suppose". And sadly this followup to The Shining, 39 years since the film came out, is little more than "okay, I suppose". Even given that I've never been a huge fan of The Shining itself, which I nevertheless rewatched on DVD last week as homework, I found myself strangely disappointed in Doctor Sleep: it's long, it takes its time and it doesn't actually get creepy until it finally, finally returns to the Overlook. As niche sub-sub-genres go, "2019 sequels based on Stephen King novels in which tortured adults are compelled to revisit the site of their childhood horrors, and take over two and a half hours in the process" is pretty narrow but it least The Shining: Chapter Two (as no-one is calling it) is slightly better, or less of a letdown anyway, than It: Chapter Two.

Whereas all but the opening five minutes or so of The Shining took place within the Overlook and centred predominantly around three people, Doctor Sleep is all over the place in terms of time and place and with a far larger set of characters. By the time it gets to the adult Danny Torrance (now played by Ewan McGregor), a recovering alcoholic drifter hiding from his own supernatural abilities and his past horrors, we have also met Rose The Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), leader of a nomadic sort-of-family known as the True Knot who track down other shiners, seeking to remain immortal by consuming their victims' superpower "steam". Their latest target is 13-year-old Abra, who has established a telepathic link with Danny Torrance...

There is, happily, a lot of The Shining in Doctor Sleep, principally in the third act at the now-derelict, blizzard-strewn Overlook hotel, meticulously recreated right down to the chandeliers, Jack Nicholson's old typewriter and those godawful carpets. Wisely, recurring characters are played by look-a-bit-likes rather than CGI simulations along the lines of zombie Peter Cushing from Rogue One, and there are a few pleasingly odd touches such as Danny Torrance's interview for a hospice job apparently taking place in the same room as Jack Torrance's interview at the Overlook. It's also nice to occasionally see a film with the taller 1.85 ratio rather than the full widescreen 2.35 that pretty much every film seems to be shot in these days (the DVD of The Shining is in the even squarer 1.33, which was apparently Kubrick's own preference).

Doctor Sleep does have occasional hints of David Cronenberg's Scanners, with its ongoing psychic battles and the idea of telepathically superpowered "others" amongst us. The other film it brings to mind, though, is Near Dark for its clan of travelling near-immortals whose consumption of their victims' lifeforce is almost vampiric (be it their Shining or their actual blood). What the film isn't, though, is scary at any point: it is occasionally creepy towards the end because the Overlook is such a marvellously creepy setting anyway. That said, I never really thought The Shining itself was that scary in the first place: interesting, unusual, odd, different, fascinating, surprising, but not scary, and it wasn't even scary in the King-approved miniseries version. Certainly Doctor Sleep is interesting, unusual, occasionally surprising etcetera, but Not Scary. In the end it's fine: it's well played and shot and has some agreeably horrible moments, but it doesn't ever seem to come to full roaring life. It's okay, I suppose, but I do wish I could say it was better than that.

***

Saturday, 12 October 2019

JOKER

CONTAINS HUGE SPOILERS AND CONFUSION

Because yes, I am confused. Usually I come out of the cinema and I pretty much know what I thought of the film: liked it, hated it, but on the other hand... Yet here's one of the year's major releases, from a major studio and a major lead actor, in Hollywood's prevalent genre, and suddenly I don't entirely know what to make of it. I'm suddenly not even sure what it is - drama, comedy, character piece, satire, social comment, thriller - let alone whether I like it, let alone whether I'm even supposed to like it. I'm wary of it. I don't trust it. I don't trust it because I don't trust the mind behind it.

The joker of Joker isn't Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix, terrific), childhood abuse victim, struggling standup comedian and rent-a-clown on whom life dumps mightily every chance it gets. He loses his job, he loses his therapist, his mother is difficult to connect with, he's on seven kinds of medication, he has only the most tenuous of friendships with some of his former workmates and possibly the single mother down the hall in his rundown apartment block. Everything is horrible, the city is falling apart. Will he cope or will he snap? Is comedy his way out? Is he even funny? Then, in full clown makeup, he kills three Wall Street scumbags on the late train and becomes a Death Wish folk hero figurehead to the mad-as-hell-and-not-going-to-take-it-any-more public backlash against the one per cent...

No, the joker is actually director and co-writer Todd Phillips himself. Just before release, he tweeted nonsensically about his move away from comedies (well, Hangover movies anyway; I suppose that's what they are technically) because Woke Culture means that comedians can't say anything at all these days. It's political correctness gone sane. A man who sucks at comedy makes a film about a man who sucks at comedy - notably we don't see much of Arthur Fleck's act because that would give the game away too early as to whether he is actually any good or not, and that requires a standard of scriptwriting that can differentiate between "good" and "bad" comedy (see the recent Late Night, where the script manages a clear contrast between smart, intelligent comedy and third-rate "adult" standup). And when he gets onto live TV, in Joker character, his first gag is a bad-taste anti-joke that kills the show stone dead. Phillips' own bad-taste anti-joke is the use of a Gary Glitter song on the soundtrack for the film's Memorable Moment of Joker dancing down some steps; some were wondering whether the American makers and American audience know about Glitter the way we do in the UK, but I think Phillips knew exactly what he was doing and why.

Of course, Joker only got made because it's a DC movie set in Gotham City and features young Bruce Wayne and his parents (who ultimately make that ill-fated theatre trip, ironically to a film about a masked avenger): it's an origins story for a comic-book villain. But you can't help feeling that if they'd junked all the Batman connections (Fleck's therapist is named Debra Kane, after original Batman co-creator Bob Kane), Joker could have been a much more interesting, serious, and grownup drama about comedy and modern society. Sadly it's shackled to its roots, setting up the bad guy for a sequel that is at least two years away and most likely won't happen with Phoenix anyway.

It is odd, but fitting, that a film about a character whose earlier incarnation had the mantra "Why so serious?", from a comicbook movie franchise that specialised in grit and grimness (while Marvel's cinematic vision was light, quip-laden knockabout), should be a non-comedic film about comedy from a director who's given up on comedy because nobody's laughing. Comparison with Scorsese's The King Of Comedy in inevitable, as Robert De Niro himself takes second billing as the TV host on whose show Fleck is desperate to appear. Plus, Joker is supposedly set in 1981, the year before The King Of Comedy came out. (As far as films about stand-ups are concerned, the low point definitely has to be Richard Driscoll's The Comic, which was slow-clapped at a Scala horror festival.) A comedian dying on his/her arse is a peculiarly horrifying, mortifying sight, like watching a traffic accident, and in the case of Joker it's made worse because deep down we really don't want Fleck to succeed: he's such a (deliberately) offputting character and performer that hideous, crushing failure is not just inevitable but justified.

So it's not a comedy, and it's not a thriller or a blockbuster, as it doesn't have action scenes and only includes a couple of viscerally violent moments (though one in particular is genuinely shocking). Nor is it really a villain piece: Fleck is pitiable and pitiful but for much of the time he's clearly not evil, and he's a long way from the dazzling criminal mastermind he supposedly becomes. Joker is more like a character who Fleck plays and is ultimately taken over by him, but he's still a long way from Romero, Nicholson or Ledger. More than anything else, Joker is more than anything else a simple drama of man versus the world and the world wins. Technically it's fine: a good exercise in convincing, detailed world-building, and well shot though saddled with a dreary, miserably joyless score. Ultimately it does as much right as it does wrong, it's an undeniably interesting film, with a great central performance, but it's definitely not a fun entertainment. I'm still not sure exactly how I feel about it: I didn't hate it, I didn't love it, it's not the best DC have done (Wonder Woman, Aquaman) and it's not the worst (Man Of Steel, Dawn Of Justice, Justice League), and I don't really feel any need to see it again.

***

Saturday, 21 September 2019

RAMBO: LAST BLOOD

CONTAINS SPOILERS AND OUCH, THAT'S GOT TO HURT

Well, it's better than the previous one in the increasingly mis-numbered series: this is actually the fifth in the series after the film that should have been, but wasn't, called Rambo IV. That fourth entry was a senseless and unengaging bloodbath that was surprisingly dull for a film with a body count of 254 (according to the Rambo Wiki site) which tried to justify its insane levels of wanton carnage with a spurious political subtext about Burma. Happily the new one doesn't even attempt any kind of commentary but just settles for being a meatheaded sub-Chuck Norris revenge movie, and it's (relatively) better for it.

Having done Vietnam, rural America, Vietnam again, Russia and Burma, John Rambo is now home on his ranch, training horses and sitting on his porch watching the sun go down. He has an undefined relationship with a woman who lives there, except that at one point he knew her grand-daughter's father before he abandoned the family and disappeared into Mexico. Said grand-daughter decides to contact her absentee father, against Rambo's advice, but is promptly abducted by a sex slave ring; when she doesn't come back, Rambo heads down there to sort things out and kill people...

Sylvester Stallone is now 73 years old (Roger Moore stopped being James Bond when he was 58) so this is probably Rambo's final outing. It plays early on with his being damaged, mentally, emotionally and physically by his war experiences, suggesting he's susceptible to flashing lights and loud noises (though he does have a long scene in a strobe-lit nightclub); despite the horrors of Nam he's built a vast network of tunnels under his ranch which come in handy for the Skyfall-like finale of bloody booby traps and absurdly huge explosions.

Rambo: Last Blood is a popcorn meat movie and a solidly mounted example of the type, but nothing deeper than that: it isn't very good at all, it has very little in the way of humour (though some of the violence is very funny in its over-the-top sadism) and Brian Tyler's unmemorable score isn't in the same league as Jerry Goldsmith's music for the first three films, to which it pays insufficient homage. But if you want half and hour of anonymous Mexican scumbags getting slaughtered bloodily enough to earn the coveted red 18 certificate then it's probably worth plodding through the first hour of backstory and setup to get there. I enjoyed it more than I was expecting, and I had more fun than I was probably supposed to, but I couldn't honestly recommend it to anyone why wouldn't go and see it anyway.

***

Thursday, 19 September 2019

FRIDAY THE 13TH PART V: A NEW BEGINNING

CONTAINS SPOILERS AND A SUDDEN REALISATION

Okay, okay, I admit it: Friday The 13th Part V: A New Beginning actually isn't very good. There, I've said it. Happy now? I've always maintained an irrational affection for this fifth instalment in the series, mainly because it was the first Friday movie I ever saw (indeed, one of the very first slasher movies I ever saw), and I saw it entirely alone in my local 1600-seat Granada. You can't buy memories like that. Even watching it again on VHS and DVD didn't kill the film for me. But then, most recently, revisiting it on the import Blu finally shattered any last illusions that it might not have been all that bad - it is. That clanging sound you hear is the scales falling from my eyes and shattering on the floor.

This is, of course, the one in which Jason only makes a token cameo appearance in a dream sequence and then it's someone else in the hockey mask killing off the local imbecile population of somewhere which isn't Camp Crystal Lake: it's a halfway house for disturbed teenagers, including newest arrival Tommy Jarvis who killed Jason at the end of Part 4 but is now troubled with nightmares. (Mysteriously he's now played by a grown adult 12 years older than early teenager Corey Feldman in Part 4 despite there only being one year between films.) But if Jason is actually, really, genuinely, truly dead, who's the hockey-masked killer picking off the patients, staff and sundry locals?

You do get a large body count: an assortment of nasty if MPAA-friendly deaths from some of the stupidest and least plausible machete magnets you've ever seen in even the dumbest of cheap sitcoms. Included in the halfwit roll call are: a top music star who lives in a Winnebago and who gets killed in a portaloo, a yeehawing redneck biker and his yeehawing redneck mom (rivalling the bickering store owners from Part 3 for irrelevance and irritation) and two stone-cold brain donors looking to pick up girls with phenomenally low standards. Dialogue and acting would be rudimentary in a below-average nativity play, and if it wasn't for Harry Manfredini's violin section working overtime while the familiar Final Girl routine is cranked up for the last reel it would be absolutely unwatchable.

The climactic battle in the barn with the lightning storm raging outside is really the only point at which the film comes to anything like slasher life, and it's hardly surprising that future instalments went back to Jason himself rather than an unlikely impostor: A New Beginning was actually An Unfortunate Diversion. It's not the worst of the slashers - it's never actively boring or offensive - but it is certainly one of the least of the Fridays overall and the weakest at least up to that point. And clearly it always was. Even my nostalgic soft spot for it has pretty much faded.

**

Friday, 13 September 2019

WOLF

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS

It's always a nice surprise to scan the cinema listings every week and spot a film which you've never heard of, and which seems to have appeared from nowhere, with no posters, teaser trailers or adverts on the sides of buses. Even better when it's a horror movie. It's a wonderful thing, sadly too rare in an age of marketing saturation (the teaser posters for the new Wonder Woman movie have been up for ages already and the film is still a full nine months away: seriously, even babies don't take this long to arrive), to see a film totally cold: but it's a pity, however, when the film itself actually turns out not to be very good and sadly this new low-budget British werewolf movie just doesn't deliver.

It's A.D. 150 and a squad of Roman soldiers are on a mission deep in the empty wilds of the hairy British North to find their missing comrades and to convey a message of peace to the Pict leaders. But they soon realise that some kind of beast is tracking and hunting them through the forests: savagely dismembered corpses, mysterious animal tracks, and brutal attacks by barely glimpsed predators...

Wolf is essentially a war movie: a tale of soldiers on a mission that doesn't stick to the plan, with characters ranging from death-or-glory warriors to thoughtful tacticians to simple cowards. It's also pleasingly diverse: the film mixes genders and races rather than sticking with the traditional idea of a band of Roman soldiers as a bunch of white guys. But the dialogue is mostly pretty awful (though there is a nice throwaway line suggesting that the same fate befell the famously lost Ninth Legion) and, crucially for a monster movie, the monsters themselves are hardly seen, mostly running past the camera and slightly out of focus (and when they are briefly visible they appear to been fitted with Jim Dale's false teeth from Carry On Screaming).

It's not the worst film to hit UK cinemas this year. And as werewolf movies go it's certainly better than at least three of the Howling sequels (four if you count the abysmal Reborn): the low budget means a limited cast and it doesn't have ambitions it can never fulfil. But in the end it's just not very interesting and fans of British lycanthrope cinema will probably get more fun out of something like Paul Hyett's train-bound Howl. Kudos for getting it into UK multiplex chain cinemas at all, though.

**

Thursday, 12 September 2019

IT: CHAPTER TWO

WE ALL SPOIL DOWN HERE

Well, it's a disappointment. There's no two ways around it: It: Chapter Two isn't anywhere near as good as the first half and for all the visual horror unleashed at the screen - ghosts, gribbley monsters - for its hundred and sixty nine minutes (take the afternoon off or put the babysitter on overtime), it's surprising just how insufficiently scary it is, to the extent that even the simple Boo! moments didn't raise very much of a response. In terms of getting to grips with the plot it's worth rewatching the earlier instalment, because a lot of the new film directly references those events, both in flashbacks and new footage with the younger cast. However, the downside of this is that it reminds you how good It was, and how much of a comedown Chapter Two is.

Twenty seven years later, Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard) resurfaces in Derry, Maine and the Losers Club are called back to confront him/It again as they'd vowed to do in blood. Now middle-aged and  variously successful, but still troubled and traumatised by those childhood events, they have to perform an ancient ritual to banish the evil forever, as well as facing down the buried horrors and fears of the past. And essentially that's it: instead of bickering, squabbling kids they're bickering, squabbling adults dancing those same steps again, revisiting their earlier terrors which Pennywise is using against them.

So everyone gets a segment in which they go to their old homes, their old school, their old childhood haunts and hideaways, and Pennywise magicks up a monstrous hallucination to terrify them. And this gets repetitive: Jessica Chastain's Beverly goes back to her childhood home and the woman living there now invites her in - but then turns into a monster and then it turns out the building was long abandoned anyway. Jay Ryan's Ben goes back to the school where he was the bullied fat kid and gets chased round the empty corridors. James Ransome's Eddie goes back to the pharmacy and finds his obese, grotesque mother in the basement. Bill Hader's annoying nonstop comedian Richie goes back to the local videogame arcade... and so on.

Chapter One focussed on those characters as children and back then they were a likeable enough bunch, but in their adult incarnations they're a lot less interesting and I found myself not really caring what happened to them and not being scared for them when the bad stuff started happening. To be honest the TV version did it better and in two hours less. It's interesting that the two most horrifying scenes in the movie are a vicious homophobic assault right at the start and a scene of nasty domestic violence, and Pennywise is central to neither of them. The first, which came as a surprise as I didn't remember it from the Tim Curry miniseries (I'm assuming it's in the book, which I haven't read), arguably harks forward to a character reveal later on, though I didn't spot any suggestions of it in a preparatory rewatch of Chapter One. The second is in the miniseries (and echoes Beverly's hideous relationship with her creepy-as-hell father) but it still felt out of place and crueller and more sadistic than anything Pennywise does: Both of these are things which are real and genuine and people suffer from them every day of their lives, and they're more horrific and unsettling than any number of clearly unreal spider monsters, rotting corpses or howling ghosts conjured up by a demonic dancing clown.

I didn't hate Chapter Two, but I didn't like it nearly as much as the first one. Bits of it are very well done and the spider monster is particularly horrible (though it leads to a Thing reference that didn't need to be there), but other parts dragged terribly and I left the cinema glad that it was over. I genuinely felt it needed a massive edit: there is no way that this needs to be two and three quarter hours long, whatever the intentions of fidelity to the book might have been. I wish I'd liked it more (obviously) but in the end it didn't really deliver and it didn't fulfil the promise of the first one.

**

Sunday, 8 September 2019

UNDER THE SILVER LAKE

SPOILERS AND STUFF

Skunks. Nudity. A parrot. A mythical owl demon manifested as a naked, masked woman. A serial dog-killer. A map in an old cereal packet. A missing billionaire. A secret bomb shelter. A plummeting squirrel. Kurt Cobain's guitar. The graves of Janet Gaynor and Alfred Hitchcock. Drugged cookies. A comic book. An old issue of Playboy. Backmasking. Hobo codes. The Homeless King. A bust of James Dean. Subliminal advertising. Marilyn Monroe. A rock band. A face cast of Johnny Depp. A drone camera. A dancing girl covered in balloons. A bloke dressed as a pirate. The theme song from Cheers.

All of this and more might have something to do with the incidental mystery at the heart of Under The Silver Lake, the second film from David Robert Mitchell after the impressive It Follows. Whereas that film was a tight, intriguing genre piece with a new take on the horror movie monster, this is a long, aimless, unfocused mess of a film that comes across as a vaguely Mulholland Drive take on Terence Malick's Knight Of Cups. Andrew Garfield doesn't have a job, is behind on his rent, and spies Rear Window-style on his neighbours as they sunbathe or wander about topless. The fantastically hot girl next door abruptly disappears and Garfield, having nothing much else to do with his days, investigates...

It all sounds very interesting, but as a plot it's all over the place. Ideas are raised and dropped, some vast overarching conspiracy is hinted at but never explored, it's over two hours long, and the resolution when it comes is absolute nonsense. But it's a rambling, babbling mess with a terrific orchestral score than has echoes of Herrmann and Badalamenti about it (Herrmann presumably for Hitchcock in general rather than the specifically referenced Rear Window, which Herrmann didn't score). Comparisons have been made with Richard Kelly, who also followed up an instant hit debut with shrieking gibberish, although I never really liked Donnie Darko in the first place and Southland Tales was at least bonkers/funny. Under The Silver Lake really isn't very good, but connoisseurs of car-crash weirdness might get a few laughs out of it.

**

Wednesday, 4 September 2019

BLISS

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS AND CALM DOWN, FOR CRYING OUT LOUD!!!

DRUGS!!! SEX!!! BLOOD!!! NUDITY!!! STROBING!!! BOOZE!!! MORE DRUGS!!! HEADACHES!!! SWEARING!!! SHOUTING!!! DEATH!!! HORRIBLE PEOPLE!!! PAINT!!! BELLOWING!!! LOUD MUSIC!!! JOE BEGOS' LATEST IS SADLY A HUGE DISAPPOINTMENT AFTER THE EIGHTIES THROWBACKS OF ALMOST HUMAN AND THE MIND'S EYE!!! PARTICULARLY THE SECOND ONE!!! THIS HAS NONE OF THE RETRO CHARM OF EITHER OF THEM, BEING CONTENT MERELY TO SCREAM AT YOU THROUGH A MEGAPHONE TO ABSOLUTELY NO POSITIVE EFFECT!!!

That's what Bliss is like: a film made in All Caps. It reaches peak volume and intensity very quickly (the opening credits are look-away dazzling), so it has nowhere else to go for the rest of the running time, and it scarcely lets up. Telling of spectacularly foul-mouthed artist Dezzy facing an imminent deadline who breaks her creative block by ingesting huge amounts of drugs, but becomes something else as a result, it doesn't have all that much in the way of story, characters worth spending any time with (at no time did I give a toss about anybody on screen) or nuance BECAUSE EVERYONE IS SCREAMING AND DRINKING AND INGESTING AND LISTENING TO RUBBISH MUSIC AND TAKING THEIR CLOTHES OFF ALL THE TIME AT FULL VOLUME.

MAYBE IT WOULD.... sorry: maybe it would be less of an ordeal if seen at home: it's shot on grainy 16mm celluloid but it looks terrible when projected on an unsuitably large Imax screen, giving the low-def resolution the effect of a slightly off-station TV set. It would definitely have helped it there had been some peaks and troughs rather than a near-constant maximum: it has no room to breathe, so neither do we. And it would have helped if lead character Dezzy hadn't been so thoroughly uninteresting. I found it a slog to get through, completely unlikeable and occasionally unwatchable, and a major letdown after The Mind's Eye. Pass the Nurofen.

*

FEEDBACK

SPOILERS ON LINE 5

A confined, almost theatrical (with a few adjustments this could play nicely as a stage presentation) drama with fierce performances and a great deal of hashtag topicality behind it, Feedback was one of the best films on show at this year's FrightFest and one which I'm still thinking about several days afterwards. It bravely looks at both sides of a subject when it's easier and safer to settle for one, it opts for ambiguity rather than easy answers, and despite the bulk of the film taking place in one single darkened space it's cinematic throughout, richly photographed throughout to the extent you forget the physical limits of the setting, like Oliver Stone's Talk Radio (remember that one?).

Eddie Marsan is Jarvis Dolan, an outspoken talk radio host on a London station, wanting to stay political and significant while his ratings-savvy bosses want to partner him with Andrew Wilde (Paul Anderson), an old colleague and lighter, celebrity fluff-oriented co-presenter. On their first show, the studio is taken over by a heavily-armed trio with a specific agenda: to produce on-air confessions over an incident in a Belfast hotel room with the two men and a trio of young fans some years previously. But how deeply was Jarvis involved? What happened to the second girl in that hotel room - the long-missing daughter of one of the invaders?

While it leaves no doubt as to Wilde's guilt, the film leaves open the question of whether Jarvis' own confession is genuine (was he even there?) or whether he's inventing a story, telling his gun-wielding captors what he thinks they want to hear so they won't kill any of the hostages. It's to the film's credit that it doesn't go down the easy route of making him a clear villain who then tries to pathetically justify his actions: it's dramatically far more interesting to leave us uncertain even at the end and afterwards. You can quibble about holes in the story - is no-one at the station actually listening to the broadcast? Why has someone left large inflammable gas cylinders lying around? - but it's gripping throughout, with some startling violence, pithily profane dialogue and (currently) topical Brexit references. Well worth seeing.

****