Tuesday, 23 May 2017

KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD

CONTAINS SOME GAS-FIRED (GAS-FIRED BOILERS, SPOILERS)

Cor blimey, guvnor, strike a light and no mistake, come and 'ave a butchers at what His Bleedin' Nibs Lord Sir Guy Of Ritchie has done now, it's a right ****in' palavar, me old china, oi-oi, apples and pears, chim chimernee... Really. It's basically a London gangster movie, only nominally relocated to the fifth century but with giant fire-breathing pachyderm things at the start, an octopus demon and cor blimey, guvnor, it's David Beckham. Acting. (Some have mocked the film for this specifically, but it's not significantly worse or more jarring than everything else that's going on throughout.)

In this version Arthur is spirited away from Camelot Castle as a toddler, following a coup by his wicked uncle Vortigern (Jude Law), and ending up as an urchin living in a London bordello. Over the years he becomes a streetwise, hard-but-fair lovable rogue (Charlie Hunnam), wheeling and dealing and ducking and diving to the extent you do honestly expect the Minder theme tune to crash in at any moment. But The Sword has been found: the legend states that only the rightful King can pull it from the stone and Vortigern is having every man of the right age brought to Camelot to give it a tug. Next thing you know he's in a cave with Djimon Hounsou and mysteriously accented mage Astrid Berges-Frisbey and reluctantly manning up to reclaim the throne....

King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword is obviously utter tosh, in modern dialogue and modern slang (with one of the most clangingly out-of-place F-bombs in years), with CGI monsters and converted 3D action sequences crammed into a scenario where they don't really belong. Nor does the snappy, blokey, geezery banter and backchat that Ritchie wasn't able to include in his two Sherlock Holmes films or The Man From UNCLE (or presumably Swept Away, the DVD of which is still sitting in my to-watch pile). Obviously any kind of music score beyond the earliest of folk songs is going to be historically anachronistic, but Daniel Pemberton's score includes thumping techno that bolts the film too firmly to this era instead of that: a pity, since other cues of a more traditional variety (both in terms of traditional-sounding period instruments and the traditions of film scoring in general) work much better.

Still, it's not awful: it's moderate fun in parts if you can get into it but I don't think "moderate fun in parts" is anywhere near enough if they're going to try and spin this out to a six-film franchise. It's too long and never finds the right tone between Lord Of The Rings magic/fantasy and battle scenes, and cheery cockernee knockabout full of people with names like Goosefat Bill and Wet Stick. Entertaining enough as a throwaway one-off but really we don't need to be doing this again in a hurry.

**

SATANIC

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS

By now we're well used to the main characters of quickie teen horror movies not just being thick as an extraordinarily large number of short planks, but eye-rollingly stupid to a near-suicidal degree. The old gag about "hot teenagers get stoned and play with a ouija board in the spooky old house at midnight" isn't a joke any more, it's practically a pitch for a studio franchise. Maybe we're just getting fed up with it down here on the ground, but in a world with four Sharknado movies the anti-idiot signals just aren't getting through.

Satanic is a prime example of dimwit cinema: two couples head to Los Angeles, either to watch a sitcom taping or en route to the Coachella Arts Festival (the script doesn't seem sure) but really they're in town to check out famous crime scenes such as the Sharon Tate residence (they've also specifically booked a hotel room that was the site of a notorious suicide). For no reason beyond idiocy they decide to follow the creepy owner of an occultist bookshop, where they promptly stumble upon what looks like a Satanic ritual...

It isn't a total disaster by any means: it's got a couple of nice moments and the Final Girl's fate is suitably grim and horrifying, and there's a weird timeloop dropped in towards the end for no obvious reason. But it's as forgettable and undistinguished as any one of a hundred low-budget horrors, and it can't get past the fact that the four main leads are so facepalm stupid as to render them impossible to empathise with. Missable in the extreme.

**

Thursday, 18 May 2017

ALIEN: COVENANT

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS

It's a shame, it really is. The idea of Ridley Scott going back to the Alien Universe again, with a film that ties together Alien (which everyone loves) and Prometheus (which, admittedly, only I and a few others loved), is one of those genuinely exciting events in cinema, like a new Brian De Palma thriller or a new Bond / Star Wars / [insert name of favourite auteur and/or franchise here]. Having managed to keep myself pretty much unspoiled until the first showing on the first day, I waited impatiently outside through the ads and trailers: please be good, please be good, please be good....

And it was - kind of. But the trouble was that it wasn't significantly better than good: Alien Resurrection was good. (Hell, up to a point Alien Vs Predator was solidly enjoyable, if admittedly dumb.) Alien: Covenant isn't any better than good and it damn well should have been. Certainly there were several moments when I was really enjoying it, but thinking about it afterwards on the way home I realised that few of them were to do with the film itself. Rather, it was the callbacks to Alien (and, to a lesser extent, Prometheus): familiar imagery, familiar setups, familiar music, while the new stuff suddenly felt a lot less interesting. There's a cosy pleasure in seeing the ship's crew bicker and argue the way they do on the Nostromo, in the spraying water and clanking chains that hark back to Harry Dean Stanton's big moment.

In addition to Alien, there's a lot of Blade Runner in here: the film even starts with a close-up of an eye. That's synthetic David's (Michael Fassbender) eyeball, as he discusses God, creation and what it means to be human with his own creator Weyland (Guy Pearce, unbilled). The bulk of the film concerns the colony spaceship Covenant decades later, carrying two thousand colonists and a cabinet full of embryos to a new planet seven years distant. The crew, including synthetic Walter (Fassbender again), are woken from cryosleep by a chance shockwave from a nearby star; while effecting repairs they pick up a transmission from a previously undetected planet. This might make a better colony site than their original destination, but clearly there's someone or something already here...

It looks good, and so it should because that's really what Ridley Scott does so well. The creature attacks take a while to show up but they do pack a punch, partly because they're not all facehuggers and chestbursters as we've seen before, and they don't stint on the blood and gore. I'm generally a sucker for any movie with people running around spaceships and space stations (well, almost any movie) and all that's fine. But the use of Jerry Goldsmith's and Harry Gregson-Williams' thematic material from Alien and Prometheus respectively really does show up Jed Kurzel's utterly uninteresting original score (and cueing it up afterwards on Spotify revealed it as barely listenable), and the final plot twist is so blatantly obvious it's a wonder the audience weren't yelling it at the screen. There's also a peach for connoisseurs of those clunky "hmmm, do you think THAT's going to be important later on?" moments (which also happily doubles as another nod to Blade Runner).

I really wanted to love it and I'd have been perfectly happy to have just really liked it - but the more I think about it the more it just comes across as okay and an Alien movie by its original director really needs to be more than just okay. One of the reasons I liked Prometheus so much was because it did go off in different directions to Alien and had more intellectual ambitions (even if they weren't fully realised), full of questions of humanity and the meaning of life rather than bickering about their bonus payments - bickering which fits perfectly in Alien but wouldn't have done in Prometheus. This time around Fassbender's synthetics are more annoying than before; there are still too many characters to keep track of and only about half of them (particularly captain Billy Crudup, terraformer Katherine Waterston, pilot Danny McBride) get significant moments in the light, and ultimately the monster stuff is more interesting than the philosophising, which had its place in Prometheus but really doesn't seem to fit here. More than anything else Alien: Covenant is a disappointment because hopes were so high and, unlike Prometheus (and the first three Alien movies), I find I have no desire to watch it again.

***

Thursday, 4 May 2017

PHANTASM: RAVAGER

BOYYYYYYY!!!!! CONTAINS SPOILERS!!!!!

Not to beat about the bush here, but this fifth Phantasm movie, the first in nineteen years, is a frankly unworthy note on which to end the series. It's one of those films that very quickly shuffles between any number of alternate realities - dreams, flashbacks, stories, all in someone's mind, all in someone else's mind, some, none or all of the above and possibly two at a time - leaving the audience unsure where we are and what's reality. This has always been a central idea in horror movies, whether just tricksing about with the borders of fantasy and reality or for a cheap it-was-all-a-dream shock moment, and there are movies out there that aren't much interested in an airtight narrative - Videodrome, or even the original Phantasm - but in this instance it reaches the point where it feels like homework and you can't be bothered picking through it all.

In order to fully appreciate Phantasm: Ravager I actually spent the previous day running the first four movies back to back, since I hadn't seen the third and fourth entries since their VHS rental releases. Like a lot of franchises it goes on for at least one film more than necessary: in chronological order they're good, better, better than I remembered and pants respectively, with the second one easily being the most impressive in the series though I have a certain fondness for the cult original's weirdness. The frankly ever-unappealing Reggie (Reggie Bannister) is still wandering the desert, on the trail of the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm) and looking for his friends Mike (A Michael Baldwin) and Jody (Bill Thornbury), all returning regulars through the series (though Baldwin was briefly replaced by James Le Gros in Phantasm II). Or is he?

Much of the previous movie took place in the desert where Mike, struck by the franchise's USP flying silver spheres at the end of Part III, was apparently developing Tall Man abilities of his own - but now it appears that the whole saga has been taking place inside Reggie's imagination and he's sitting in a psychiatric hospital being visited by an entirely human Mike. Or is he really in a future hellscape of American cities levelled by giant spheres in the Independence Day manner, and he's fantasising about living in a care home as an escape from the apocalyptic horror?

The Jawa-like slaves in cowls return, the flying spheres return, and the Tall Man himself is an agreeably strange and sinister bogeyman figure. The canvas is much bigger, particularly towards the end, and the music score is much louder (happily using the same theme). But I kind of miss the wonky, shonky charm of the first two films: they'd got the goriest moments and the loopiest, most imaginative ideas, and they didn't have the dreaded CGI blood spurts as they do this time around. They were messy but fun, with a terrific villain, and this is messy and not much fun. Perhaps it's not much of a disappointment after the fourth one, but it's certainly a long fall from the series' early heights, and it's odd to see the regular performers in a franchise still doing it over a third of a century later. The imagery under the end credits suggests what a final Phantasm chapter might have looked like if they'd had the money to do it, but in the event it's sadly underwhelming and uninteresting. A muted final note for what was once one of the more intriguing and off-kilter horror series.

**

RESURRECTION OF THE MUMMY

ARISE, SPOILERS!

There's a comedy trailer online called "Hell No": a spoof horror movie trailer in which everyone does the smart thing and makes the sensible, rational decisions. (It's actually been online since 2013 but coincidentally resurfaced this week on my Twitter feed.) Decisions like not going into the abandoned mental asylum with a ouija board, like not splitting up in the spooky old house, like cops waiting for backup. Because the dimmest of horror movies have frequently relied on the simple trick of dropping a bunch of clueless idiots, all of whom can be relied upon to ignore even the most basic common sense, into a scary situation and then just watching them charge around screaming and making astoundingly bad choices. Sometimes they're so stupid that it becomes self-defeating: there's no real horror when they had it coming. Serves them right.

As dimbulb horror goes, Resurrection Of The Mummy is pretty underpowered. A gaggle of nubile Egyptology researchers (led by an obviously shady professor who's also the father of the dimmest of them) investigate the hidden pyramid of The Nameless One, despite the warnings of an Unspeakable Evil, the killing of their guides by the military and the fact that they don't have permits. Oh well, what could possibly go wrong? One of them brings some weed to help with her confinement issues (why would you go into practical Egyptology in the first place if you're claustrophobic?), they split up, they wander off in an unmapped maze of burial chambers and death traps, going back to look for their companions...

It's maybe not the worst pyramid-based Z-horror on the shelves (that could well be 2005's Legion Of The Dead), but it's still twaddle, obviously, though fairly painless and mercifully short at 77 minutes including a very slow end credit crawl. It's also surprisingly sexless: the girlies may all look like cheerleaders in their day clothes but they're covered up enough and there are no boyfriends to kinkily make out with behind the sarcophagus. And the mummy design is pretty effective, though the CG effects are as duff as expected. Overall it's hardly worth the effort, but it's not something to get angry about and I didn't resent the 50p to buy it in my local CEX. Originally called The Mummy Resurrected, emblazoned on the screen and artwork in a font that suggests it's a belated entry in the Brendan Fraser franchise (they wish); the UK packaging and onscreen title card are completely different,

**

BERSERKER: THE NORDIC CURSE

CONTAINS SPOILERS

There's not much to say about yet another dumb 80s horror slasher in which a sextet of teenage morons are set upon by an immortal Viking lunatic in a bearhide cape. The aforementioned morons, out for a long weekend of camping in the woods (famous for its legends of Olde Norse monsters) and as much sex, beer and pot as they can get, trek out to the wrong camping lodge, argue, wander off into the woods to have sex, find corpses left over from the opening sequence, run around screaming, and injure themselves while charging through the undergrowth. Meanwhile someone or something is picking them off....

After a while you get bored with them and their colossally uninteresting antics, and you end up looking around the flat wondering which household items you'd most like to shove into their heads*, particularly with regard to lead dumbass Josh who's so arrogant, charmless and tiresome I would have been happier if the entire running time of Berserker: The Nordic Curse had just been devoted to him getting his skin clawed off in loving close-up.

There's absolutely nothing surprising, nothing unusual: everyone does everything they're expected to do in a cheap join-the-dots teenkill movie. Of course there's going to be a campfire scene in which one of them explains the scary legend and another leaps hilariously out of the darkness to scare the girl. Of course they're not going to take any notice of the sheriff or the campsite owner (George "Buck" Flower"). Of course they're going to have sex in the woods in the middle of the night. They have to, it's the law. Events aren't helped by indifferent picture quality on the British DVD release and some genuinely, awesomely terrible rock songs. Made in 1987.

* Tin opener, metal coathanger and Allen key.

*

Saturday, 22 April 2017

UNFORGETTABLE

CONTAINS SPOILERS

The biggest mystery about this isn't why they called it Unforgettable, which is a gift of a title to snarky reviewers. Ignoring the fact that it's a fairly generic title that doesn't have much to do with the onscreen action (at least the 1996 Ray Liotta film was sort of about memory), it's like calling a film Impressive or Marvellous: unless your film is undeniably impressive or marvellous then you're giving your detractors an open goal. Rather, the question I left Milton Keynes Cineworld with was: what is that doing in cinemas instead of its natural homes on Netflix or the bargain DVD rack in Sainsbury's? Sure, it's got a generic title, because it's a generic movie. That doesn't mean it's a bad movie, but it's surprising just how not surprising it is.

This feels like a film that, if it were ever in cinemas, would have screened back in the early 1990s along with Deceived and The Hand That Rocks The Cradle, although it's got very strong hints of the earlier Fatal Attraction. Former City whizz David (Geoff Stults) has given up the money life to settle down in California and open a brewery with new girlfriend Julia (Rosario Dawson) and his daughter. But his impossibly perfect ex Tessa (Katherine Heigl) isn't going to let him or the child go that easily, using Julia's traumatic past secrets to wreck the new relationship....

It's pleasingly female-led, with Heigl (probably best known for romantic comedies) giving good maniac, and there's some satisfyingly face-punching violence towards the end once she stops being creepy and sinister and degenerates into full-on screaming crazy. There's a nod to blaming it all on Tessa's own upbringing (Cheryl Ladd is the overcontrolling grandmother) but as the film goes on her actions are less those of a natural mother than a regular thriller villain, as she becomes more unhinged to the point where her plans have completely disintegrated. But there are no twists, no surprises, no unexpected moments, no final reveal that something else entirely was going on throughout, nothing. This scene, then this scene, then this scene. Watchable as a Friday night New On Netflix random selection ("because you liked Domestic Disturbance"), but weirdly unremarkable as a national cinema release.

**

RULES DON'T APPLY

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS AND A MUSICAL PUN

There are two movies going on here: one a forbidden romance set against the backdrop (or back-projection screen) of Old Hollywood, the other a starry biopic of the later years (mostly 1959, bookended with scenes in 1964) of increasingly irrational billionaire recluse Howard Hughes. Either one would be interesting by itself, but the trouble is that they're oddly bolted together, with the conventional boy-meets-girl fluff taking ever more of a back seat to the antics of a cranky old goat surrounded by his closest employees getting steadily more frustrated by his ever more erratic behaviour by the day.

In truth Rules Don't Apply is more of a love triangle between driver Frank (Alden Ehrenreich in his second Old Hollywood movie after Hail, Caesar!), fresh-off-the-bus aspiring contract player Marla Mabery (Lily Collins) and legendary industrialist and RKO studio boss Howard Hughes (Warren Beatty, also director, producer and screenwriter). Frank and Marla's relationship is forbidden not just by their own strict religious upbringing (and Marla's even stricter mother played by Annette Bening who really isn't in it enough) but by their employment contracts with Hughes, who's never even met them. Marla's pushy and insistent, though, finally getting her meeting and screen test, and more.... Meanwhile, Frank has to decide: does he want to make it on his own or stay within the Hughes empire at the cost of his dreams? Does he really want Marla or his seventh-grade sweetheart (Taissa Farmiga)?

In the second half of the movie, Hughes takes over, embodying Dennis Hopper's bad guy line from Speed that "poor people are crazy, I'm eccentric!". He won't meet the financiers whose loans his business needs, he holes up in hotel rooms and refuses to come out, he demands a truck full of one particular ice cream then demands a different flavour, he fires his minions for doing their jobs, he turns off the aircraft engines mid-flight. The trouble is that it's stated that "everyone's got a crush on Hughes" but aside from his billions there's no apparent reason why this version of HH would be so apparently attractive. Still, an array of familiar names and faces show up, some for only a scene and a couple of lines: Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, Alex Baldwin, Oliver Platt, Paul Sorvino, Martin Sheen, Steve Coogan.

In the manner of Woody Allen (who could have easily done the period Hollywood romance stuff, but a lot funnier and sharper), Rules Don't Apply doesn't have a score of its own, instead using pop songs from the likes of Bobby Darin and Rosemary Clooney and, several times, Gustav Mahler's wonderfully miserable Adagietto, most famously used in Visconti's Death In Venice but probably tracked in here because the female lead's name is Marla (Marla, Mahler, geddit?). It's a bit of a mess, too long at 127 minutes and it seems curiously old-fashioned, but the period detail with the cars, decor and fashions makes up for the lack of easy afternoon's entertainment that was promised by the poster and the first third or so of the movie. Even though it's half an hour longer, I much preferred The Carpetbaggers.

**

Friday, 14 April 2017

KNIGHT OF CUPS

UMMM.... CONTAINS.... ERM.... SOME.... WAFFLE.... BLATHER.... SPOILERS.... UMMM.... WAFFLE....

What's it all about, eh? Life? Really, what does it mean, what's it all for? What's the point of it? What's the point of anything? What is love? What can we be? Who are we underneath? Why? Indeed, why not? Answers to the great insoluble posers (and indeed poseurs) of our time to Terrence Malick, who here invites us to ponder at great and unnecessary length on such eternal headscratchers as love, sex, success, money, God, family, happiness, marriage, regret and Antonio Banderas. What's it all about? Don't ask me, I only watched it.

Knight Of Cups isn't much in the way of plot, narrative or incident, being mainly concerned with top screenwriter Christian Bale musing on these great philosophical abstractions that have plagued mankind since before the war at least. We never see him type a single word, but he must be fantastically successful because he's got a terrific Los Angeles apartment (with an ocean view!), and by the look of it his deadlines are incredibly distant because he spends all his time wandering along the beach, going to parties, wandering about in the desert and blathering nonsensically to a succession of impossibly glamorous women who blather as much as he does. Banderas turns up at a party, prattles about raspberries and strawberries, and doesn't show up in the rest of the film. Imogen Poots turns up, prattles for a bit and then disappears. Cate Blanchett (as his ex) turns up, prattles for a bit and then disappears. Teresa Palmer turns up, prattles for a bit and then disappears. Brian Dennehy (as his Dad) turns up, prattles, disappears, comes back, prattles a bit more, and then disappears. Natalie Portman turns up, prattles....

This all goes on for two hours: two hours in which nothing happens except a bunch of shallow, empty people try and make sense of where their lives have gone wrong. And even when things do actually happen - a mugging, an earthquake - they're immediately dropped and never mentioned again. Normally this would be utterly intolerable, but the film's sole saving grace is that it is magnificently, magnificently photographed. Los Angeles at night, the beach, the desert, strip clubs, Las Vegas, apartments, all the beautiful people: everything looks utterly wonderful. It's the people who make it such a chore to wade through: cut them all out, put some mellow ambient tones on the soundtrack and you've got a lovely relaxing screensaver. As it is, it's industrial strength piffle and not worth the TWO HOURS it takes to stodge through to its conclusion.

**

Monday, 10 April 2017

GHOST IN THE SHELL

CONTAINS SPOILERS?

This is shaping up to be one of those movies that's more notable for the Outrage! and Fury! generated by its casting decisions than for its actual merits as a film. Should an actress as demonstrably white as Scarlett Johansson be cast in a role that was originally Asian, specifically Japanese, in the original comicbook source and 1995 animated version (full disclosure: neither of which I'm familiar with)? Every so often the whitewashing controversy surfaces again, be it Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One in Doctor Strange or Gerard Butler as an Ancient Egyptian deity in Gods Of Egypt, and while no-one appears to be going as far as Mickey Rooney's "hilarious" Japanese in Breakfast At Tiffany's (a characterisation that makes Benny Hill's forays into racial stereotype look like models of cultural sensitivity), the question remains of how far you can actually go with it. Should only British actors play Richard III? Should only Danes play Hamlet? Ridley Scott's justifications for casting Christian Bale rather than "Mohammed So-and-so" in Exodus: Gods And Kings were incredibly badly phrased, but was he reflecting studio reluctance to spend hundreds of millions on a film with an unfamiliar star, or the audiences who are unlikely to bother seeing it, thus making it a bad investment?

The real pity is that the star casting in Ghost In The Shell is ultimately going to be the most memorable thing about it: it's an oddly drab, murky movie which, for all the eye-popping visuals and action sequences is curiously joyless. Sometime in the near future, when humans can be augmented with any number of cybernetic implants, Mira (Johansson) has been thoroughly converted into a cyborg superagent in the anti-terrorism unit, and her team is up against a superhacker (Michael Pitt) with his own superaugmented abilities. But Mira's mind is glitching, as the deleted memories of her pre-conversion past are starting to surface...

The dense, bewildering cityscape with its giant advertising logos and bright coloured lights all over the place obviously recalls Blade Runner, though the robots starting to turn human and act on their own instincts harks back even to Westworld (Mira's was supposed to be a "clean brain", according to one line from the trailer that I didn't notice in the film itself). But this seems to be much less interested in what it means to be human and much more of a vehicle for Scarlett Johansson to leap around in her flesh-coloured cyborg suit that's absolutely not supposed to look like she's spending half the film naked, no sir. And given the substantial amount of leaping about, it really should be a lot more enjoyable.

Sure it's good looking with its immersive, detailed future. The action sequences are decent enough, there's some fun to be had from Takeshi Kitano and his weird hair, and they even throw in a giant mechanical spider towards the end, just because. It doesn't have any real emotional connection, and there's not enough to make you care whether Mira discovers how she became a cyborg in the first place. So it's a mixed bag: a superbly designed world but strangely, surprisingly unexciting things happening there. It's watchable enough, but there's the nagging sense throughout that it's not as enjoyable as it should be (certainly less fun than Lucy, for example), and it just didn't knock me sideways the way Blade Runner did. But few things do.

***

Saturday, 8 April 2017

CHIPS

DEEP FRIED SPOILERS

Whose sparklingly bright idea was it to take a piece of innocuous late-1970s network fluff that played ITV at 7pm on a Saturday evening, and reboot it as a 15-rated frenzy of knob jokes, masturbation jokes, poo jokes and sex jokes, wrapped up with lots of of shooty violence and swearing? Not to suggest my inner Mary Whitehouse is stirring again, but it's like relaunching Last Of The Summer Wine and making Foggy an obese nudist and giving Compo a crystal meth habit. You're kind of betraying whatever it was that made the original show famous more than thirty years ago. Sure, you could argue that the awkwardly-capitalised CHiPs hasn't been a thing since about a fortnight after it was cancelled, less of a thing than The Dukes Of Hazzard ever was, but it's highly unlikely that a big-screen Chips is going to make it a thing once more.

In updating Chips from family-friendly primetime twaddle to grown-up action comedy (difficult to claim it as grown-up when the bulk of the humour struggles to escape the level of "poo willy bum knickers"), it's ended up as a shooty, shouty Lethal Weapon rip but without the wit, character or energy. Jon Baker (Dax Shepard, who also wrote and directed so it's really his fault) is now a former motocross stunt biker and colossal arsehole who thinks he needs to prove himself as a California Highway Patrol officer to stop his wife from leaving him. His hugely (and justifiably) reluctant partner Poncharello (Michael Pena) is now an undercover FBI agent tracking down a gang of corrupt cops, but constantly distracted by [1] Baker's inability to stay still and shut up and [2] women in yoga pants. (I just googled them and.... meh, to be honest. Whatever blows your skirt up.)

It's less Lethal Weapon (mismatched cops, full-throttle action ensues) and more Police Academy (morons join the police force, hilarity ensues) - or more accurately a Police Academy sequel, as the first Police Academy was actually perfectly good raucous fun. It honestly feels as though the makers had never sat through an actual episode of CHiPs; certainly there's no sense of love or affection for the source material. So why bother? This isn't any fun at all: I didn't laugh once during the whole running time, instead rolling my eyes at the ceiling as if to say "Really?". And I do still laugh at stuff sometimes, so I know it isn't just me, but there's absolutely nothing here.

*

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

FREE FIRE

BANG. CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS. BANG.

Full disclosure at the outset: my hopes were not high for this one. For whatever reason, I've not clicked with any of Ben Wheatley's films thus far: the most entertaining was Sightseers, but the critical responses to High-Rise, Kill List and A Field In England literally made no sense to me. (He's also directed a couple of episodes of Doctor Who, a show whose increasingly abominable writing finally forced me to walk away from it when even the pantomime idiocies of the Sylvester McCoy era couldn't). This isn't necessarily a bad thing: not connecting with a particular film-maker is like not finding a particular standup funny or not liking a particular band, and it's nothing to be ashamed of, but when so many people you know and trust tell you he/she/it/they is/are wonderful you start to wonder if the fault lies with you, when the reality there is no more "fault" in not liking Ben Wheatley movies than there is "fault" in not liking walnut whips. The defence, such as it is, rests.

Free Fire is, hurrah, a lot better. Maybe because it doesn't have that nonsensical social allegory going on (High-Rise made no sense on any level at all), opting instead for a simple B-movie shoot-em-up scenario in which colourful, amusing (and distinct) characters fire guns at each other. It's some time in the 1970s (to judge from the cars, the clothes and the 8-track cartridge of John Denver) and Cillian Murphy is looking to buy guns for the IRA from dealer Sharlto Copley in a deal put together by Brie Larson. The groups meet up to make the exchange in an abandoned umbrella factory, but two of the low-level goons have unresolved business of their own and it suddenly escalates to an all-out Last Man Standing war between everybody....

It doesn't have the literary importance and significance of High-Rise (adapted from a notoriously unfilmable JG Ballard novel) and it doesn't have any of the Media Studies coursework artiness of A Field In England. What it does have is a straightforward set-up with a small starry cast in one well-used location (and apparently taking place in real time), and which is over in a crisp 90 minutes including credits. And considering it's set overnight in a derelict factory, it's well photographed and you're never lost for what's going on and who's where. It's also fun: zingy, sweary one-liners that come from character rather than the joke book, a solid lineup of character performers (Michael Smiley is probably Man Of The Match) having a great time with the 70s costumes and hair. The setting does obviously bring Tarantino to mind, and Reservoir Dogs in particular (rather moreso than the works of Martin Scorsese who acted as executive producer here), but Free Fire has a much softer and more likeable feel to it.

Against that: it's hard to care very much when Team A are international arms dealers and Team B are supplying the IRA. And to be honest the relentless shooting gets a tad wearisome from time to time, even in a film that's basically the length of a Carry On film. Yet, for some unaccountable reasons, I find I'm thinking of it more favourable than I did while I was actually watching it. I still don't think it's a Great Film and I still don't get Ben Wheatley as a master of cinema, but I can say that it's the film of his that I've most enjoyed and had the most fun with.

***