Monday, 1 September 2014

SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS

It's been nine years since the original Sin city: the unashamedly violent and visually stunning pulp noir anthology which put comic strip imagery onto the screen in an innovative and stylish way. Directors Frank Miller (who wrote the original graphic novel) and Robert Rodriguez have now returned, though without the original's guest director Quentin Tarantino, for this more-of-the-same follow-up mixing new and returning characters in that same terrific visual palette of harsh black and white with stabs of occasional colour.

Sin City: A Dame To Kill For flips between two principal stories: firstly the treacherous and frequently naked femme fatale Eva Green's plot to bump off her husband and let her hapless ex Josh Brolin take the fall, and secondly evil senator Powers Boothe's merciless retaliation after being thoroughly routed in a high stakes poker game by God Of Gamblers Joseph Gordon Levitt. Mickey Rourke, Jessica Alba and Bruce Willis all return (the last as a ghost since he died at the end of the first film, although so did Rourke, thereby completely messing up the timeline of both movies).

Whilst I certainly wouldn't want the films' signature look to become a mainstream technique every other week, I still like it enough to be more than perfectly happy to see it come around once a decade. Sin City: A Dame To Kill For isn't anything new and it isn't anything radically different from the first film; it is very much more of the same. Which is fine by me, but that's probably enough now.

***

I SURVIVED A ZOMBIE HOLOCAUST

CONTAINS SPOILERS, ISH

Nothing to do with Marino Girolami's silly but passably entertaining Zombie Holocaust, this gory New Zealand splatter comedy plays strictly for laughs throughout, echoing early Peter Jackson and the less morally offensive output from Troma rather than serious horror films. It has a few digs at the genre movie industry, a sweetly clumsy romance, the occasional bit of genuinely gruesome bad taste horror (specifically a penis visual), and it is obviously trying. Sadly it doesn't entirely work.

Fresh out of film school, hapless but enthusiastic nerd Wesley is hired as a runner and general whipping boy on the set of a clearly terrible low-budget zombie movie. He is, of course, bullied and humiliated, falling in love with the catering girl in the process, while trying to get his own zombie movie script read by the tyrannical director. But all the low-budget movie fakery suddenly turns very real as genuine zombies turn up for unspecified reasons, surrounding the film crew with the actual walking dead....

The characters are all very broadly drawn, from the ridiculously muscular idiot lead and the ridiculously shouty director through to the ridiculously horrible prima donna actress. Except for Wesley himself, that is: his nerd-lite hero is closer to the bumbling innocent of Peter Jackson's Braindead than a frankly offensive depiction such as, say, The Toxic Avenger's Melvin (a characterisation of nerdiness that comes dangerously close to mocking the mentally handicapped).

It is intermittently amusing, and some of the gory highlights are suitably horrible. But just being intermittently amusing really isn't enough these days and making gags about horror movies is something you can only get away with in the context of a really good horror movie. Wes Craven's Scream can pull it off, while a piece of injoke laden hackwork like Hack! really cannot. Sadly, I Survived A Zombie Holocaust is a long way behind Scream: not completely at the other end of the scale, but too far away to really be able to get away with it. Not entirely terrible, but not really good enough.

**

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

OPEN WINDOWS

CLICK X TO CLOSE SPOILERS

Easily my favourite film of FrightFest 2014, Nacho Vigalondo's audacious hi-tech real-time thriller is also one of the best films of the year so far and it's a pity there doesn't seem to be a UK release on the horizon. One hopes, because for the most part it's gripping as hell, visually stylish despite being shot entirely through webcams, cellphones and security cameras, and horrifying in its suggestions of what a determined individual can do with computers. Granted, it does take its foot off the gas in the last twenty minutes or so, losing tension rather than cranking it up even more, but even so it's a treat. Oh, and it's all done in one single shot.

Not really, of course. Technically, Open Windows is one unblinking stare at the laptop display of webmaster Elijah Wood, in town to interview top movie star Sasha Grey for his fansite. He's suddenly contacted online by Neil Maskell and informed the interview is cancelled - but he can still obtain lots of juicy information by installing a few tools to hack into her cellphone and access all her conversations, such as the imminent meeting with her agent in a hotel room. But things get complicated when the agent spots him, and Wood ends up forced to take physical action...

Much of the first hour or more, with Vigalondo's camera roaming over the various displays on Wood's desktop, makes for a dazzling extended split-screen sequence that overshadows even vintage Brian De Palma, not least because the multiple viewpoints technique doesn't just last for a couple of minutes like the setpieces in Blow Out or Sisters, but just keeps going throughout the whole film. He even manages to include a car chase! It's a pity that the film feels the need to put in extra plot twists that diffuse the excitement towards the end, bringing into question who Wood and Maskell really are, and raising the stakes far above the apparently pointless harassment of a hot movie star, because for my money it was already exciting enough at that level.

Sure, the technology on display is far-fetched. Seeing through concrete walls? Where are the popups telling Wood that he can't open this link until he installs a software upgrade? Or the "Buffering: 17%" messages? How come his internet connection never goes down or his laptop battery doesn't run out at an inopportune moment? But that doesn't matter: it's all a dramatic device to tell the story, no more representative of reality than the absurd forensic technogubbins you see every week on CSI. And for at least 80% of Open Windows it works brilliantly. I want to see it again.

****

ZOMBEAVERS

CONTAINS ZOMSPOILERS

Let's get this one out of the way fairly quickly: this year's FrightFest had one of the strongest lineups in years but as in everything in life, there's invariably someone letting the side down. I know you can't get a coconut every time, but this one doesn't even know what coconuts look like, let alone where they are or how to pretend to aim roughly in their general direction. A one-joke movie whose entire script meeting consisted of bolting the words "zombie" and "beavers" together, it's obviously not any good, it knows it's not any good, it doesn't care that it's not very good, so why even bother moaning about it?

Three hot young girls go off to a remote cabin by the lake for some time away from their hunky menfolk after one of them was photographed cheating. But it's not long after the guys turn up that the local beaver population, contaminated by carelessly lost toxic waste, turn into flesh-eating undead Zombeavers, felling trees to block the only roads, biting through the phone lines, attacking our despicable ensemble...

So why bother moaning about it? Because it's lazy, stupid, shoddy (whether the shoddiness is a deliberate stab at wannabe cult status is hardly the point) and full of people so fundamentally unlikable that I signed up to Team Beaver about 15 minutes in. More work has gone into the end title song, a faux-Sinatra big band number that essentially recaps the relative highlights of the previous 70 miserable minutes. But then composers Al and Jon Kaplan (who incidentally seemed to be channelling the peerless Jerry Goldsmith in their score for Zombeavers) have been doing movie parodies in show tune form for years; it's just a shame that you have to wait for the end credits to start rolling for any actual wit. The rest of the movie is barely Asylum level trash.

*

Thursday, 21 August 2014

VERONICA MARS

FOR $10 YOU CAN HAVE THIS REVIEW WITHOUT THE SPOILERS IT DOESN'T CONTAIN ANYWAY

Maybe it's just me being old fashioned and traditionalist, but I'm not entirely convinced by the idea of crowdfunding films. I am absolutely okay with it when it comes to people trying to get low budget horror movies off the ground, or very tiny small scale projects, but I honestly don't think this method of financing should be used for proper Hollywood movies with recognisable names involved. By all means use it as a method to get on the ladder, but it shouldn't be the ladder, and once you're up there you're in a position to raise the cash a proper way: you make the movie, I pay to see it.

Veronica Mars was a TV show that ran from 2004 to 2006, which I never saw and have no real interest in digging out. Apparently it was popular enough to suggest a film version might be on the cards, yet it wasn't popular enough for a big Hollywood studio to stump up the frankly pocket change budget (estimated $6m on the IMDb). So they got the money together with a Kickstarter campaign and the result is a perfectly decent piece of throwaway fluff that's certainly enjoyable enough while it's on but two days later you'll struggle to remember much about it. Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell) is on the point of finally getting out of her impossibly glamorous Californian backwater hellhole and making it in New York as a hotshot lawyer (cue a brief cameo by Jamie Lee Curtis) after some years as a private investigator. But then she hears that one of her high school friends has been murdered, and her ex boyfriend arrested...

Well it's all right, an amusing and insubstantial way of passing a couple of hours fairly painlessly. In the league of recent teen detective movies it's certainly better than Miley Cyrus' equally disposable So Undercover. The cast (most of whom reprise their roles from the TV show) are mostly pretty and hunksome, there's a smattering of funny one liners, and it's all quite jolly and trivial and everything works out nicely in the end. Forgive me, but that's really the meat and drink of Hollywood studio blandness, so you'd have thought they'd have leapt at it for the equivalent of coins dropped down the back of Joel Silver's sofa. If I were a rich Hollywood studio, I probably would have done. But I'm not: I'm just an ordinary punter on the other end of the industry and that's where I intend to stay.

**

Meh:

DRIVE HARD

CONTAINS SPOILERS AND, IF YOU'RE LUCKY, SECOND GEAR

First off, you're asking for trouble by calling any action movie Drive Hard, or indeed Anything Hard, because it invites inevitable comparison with Die Hard and unless you are at the very very top of your game you are not going to come out of that comparison well. Second off, for crying out loud please spend some of your budget of grading your film to actually look a bit like film. It doesn't have to look like 2001 or Lawrence Of Arabia, just so long as it doesn't look like an episode of Neighbours. I know it's all shot on digital these days but the raw unprocessed video image just gives the overwhelming impression of a cheap TV movie, and if I wanted television I'd watch television.

Third off, in the name of sanity either do something slightly different, or do the same old thing well enough for an audience to not mind the repetition. Drive Hard is two parts Getaway, two parts Vehicle 19, one smidgen Midnight Run and no parts any good at all. Thomas Jane is the former racing champion turned ordinary suburban driving instructor, now giving lessons to visiting American John Cusack; suddenly Cusack robs the safe of an investment bank run by an international crime syndicate, turning Jane into his accessory-cum-hostage and triggering a chase between them, the Feds, corrupt coppers and the Mob....

It's mostly boring, the comedy stuff isn't funny (relying on the old standards like annoying children and foul-mouthed octogenarians), the action sequences are considerably less exciting than they should be, with a car and biker gang chase that's frankly less Drive Hard and more Driving Miss Daisy, and both the characters are frankly tiresome. That it's directed by Australian exploitation veteran Brian Trenchard-Smith is the biggest surprise on view, because frankly he should know better. In retrospect maybe I should have known better as well.

*

Monday, 11 August 2014

THE PURGE: ANARCHY

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS

Back in 2012 we had The Purge, a perfectly decent if entirely unoriginal home invasion thriller which suffered from a central conceit - that for 12 hours every year all crime is legal - which made absolutely no sense. In any movie future that seeks to be taken seriously (unlike the silliness of an Aeon Flux, say) there needs to be some believable progression from the present, and the idea of switching the emergency services off for twelve hours so the surviving populace can feel better about themselves through indiscriminate murder doesn't stand up. Suddenly for one night it's okay to firebomb an orphanage or a maternity ward? Now, we have a sequel in which that central idea of Cull Yourself Happy still doesn't make any sense and still isn't satisfactorily explained, but at least it does go into other areas rather than merely replicating the original.

While the first Purge was a home invasion film, The Purge: Anarchy is an old-fashioned urban action thriller that brings to mind the kind of schlocky eighties exploitation nonsense (Bronx Warriors, for example) that came out in the wake of Escape From New York: a group of civilians have to make their way across a city swarming with gangs of murderous psychopaths, many of whom are in outlandish costume and makeup for no immediately obvious reason. On that one night in March when crime is not just ignored but actively encouraged by Government, four innocent potential victims find themselves stuck outside and must survive until daybreak, helped only by an embittered police officer (Frank Grillo) with vengeance on his mind...

The first twenty minutes or so are absolutely terrible because the only thing they can achieve is to remind you just how boneheadedly stupid the central idea is. However, once the sun goes down and the purging kicks off it becomes an enjoyably tough and violent action movie - as with Arnold Schwarzenegger's Sabotage, perhaps too tough for the 15 certificate it's been given by the BBFC. It's also helped by some vicious satirical humour, with a gathering of odious millionaires effectively restarting the slave trade by literally buying poor people off the streets so they can murder them in cold blood.

While the first film was essentially about the privileged One Per Cent actually having to get their hands dirty, this is about the poor and huddled masses at the other end of the stick. One hopes that a further instalment - if there is one - will actually try and provide a plausible explanation as to how the Purge originated as a positive act of social cleansing, rather than an illogical plot device for an action franchise that in all honesty doesn't really need it anyway. Not a great film, but it is entertaining enough when it gets going.

***

KICKBOXER III: THE ART OF WAR

CONTAINS SPOILERS AND A BRIEF REFERENCE TO SUN TZU

It's been a while since I watched either of the first two films in this action franchise, but as far as I can remember it goes something like this. Along with the fantastically violent Bloodsport, the first Kickboxer was probably Jean-Claude Van Damme's breakout film, in which he underwent extensive training for the climactic tournament sequence where he spectacularly beat the tar out of someone or other in the final reel. In Kickboxer 2, Van Damme didn’t actually show up, as his character was dead (and briefly played by Emmanuel Kervyn, the genius auteur behind the Belgian splatter epic Rabid Grannies and apparently nothing else), so his brother, played by Sasha Mitchell off Dallas, went out for revenge (probably) and became world champion.

Kickboxer III: The Art Of War sees the return of Sasha Mitchell, this time in Rio to take part in a charity kickboxing exhibition and tournament. By chance he takes under his wing an allegedly cute orphan and his cuter older sister; the sister is promptly kidnapped by the fight promoter for white slavery purposes. Can Mitchell defend his world title, rescue the girl and sort out the villains?

The numerous fight scenes are certainly violent enough to at least temporarily distract attention from the fact that the plot is a load of old twine and the villain’s actions make absolutely no sense whatsoever. Why does he train Mitchell so hard when the idea is to persuade him to lose the fight? What kickboxing technique is enhanced by being dragged helplessly behind a speedboat? And what kind of moron knowingly and deliberately abducts a friend of the world kickboxing champion anyway? Still, none of that really matters as every five minutes or so Mitchell gets to repeatedly punch someone in the face and/or throw them through a window and/or fire a submachine gun at them, and they’re really the only decent bits of the film. I suppose I’d better see Kickboxer 4 sometime.

**