Monday, 27 October 2014

HIT!

CONTAINS SPOILERS AND I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT YOU JUST SAID

This 1973 movie has a personal significance for me, for reasons which have nothing to do with the film itself. The only time I ever saw it was when I was around nine, at a drive-in cinema in Malawi, and I remember not one single frame of it. In the UK it had an X for violence, language and nudity, which the Malawi censors would have lopped out with a hacksaw anyway, but it's never surfaced on British DVD (there was a VHS release, which somehow never came my way). And then, out of nowhere, it's available to stream online. How could I not?

In the event, Hit! feels to like two wildly different films bolted together: the gritty New York cop movie and the international group mission comedy, and neither really benefits from being spliced into the other. Billy Dee Williams is a tough, flashily-dressed cop who vows revenge on the heroin dealers whose lethal trade killed his young daughter - not the local street dealers, but the rich Euroscum at the top of the industry. So he recruits a motley assortment of fellow victims of the drugs trade: an addict, parents who lost their son, a man (Richard Pryor doing serious) who lost his wife, to travel to to Marseilles and murder the drug barons in cold blood....

It's a mercy that the streaming service had a subtitling option. Not because of the scenes with the French drug barons, which don't have subtitles but in the event it doesn't matter (my 34-year-old O-Level was very little help) as the dialogue has no relevance to the plot - rather, it was the scenes in English that required them. Billy Dee Williams, who obviously knew how to speak clearly when he turned up in The Empire Strikes Back, delivers every line in an indistinct mumble that makes Brando at his least comprehensible sound like the bloke who used to narrate the Pathe newsreels, and gives today's practitioners of the art of Advanced Verbal Burbling a masterclass in sounding like he's squeaking through a sock.

Language difficulties aside, Hit! is a bit of a mixed bag: the first half feels like it's going to be another French Connection, while the second is a more enjoyable series of assassinations in which people who aren't trained killers manage to bump off the criminals with little difficulty and no trauma, shock or remorse. (Hey, they're heroin dealers so they deserve it.) But I'd have liked it more if it had skewed more towards Panic In Needle Park and less towards Death Wish, where the amateurs manage to wipe out the professionals for the good of civilised society; that half is certainly more fun but sillier (Williams mysteriously gives himself the hit which involves the most speaking French to French natives, despite the fact that he can't speak French or, indeed, at all). Not a classic, then, but enjoyable in spots and it's nice to finally know what I apparently saw bits of forty years ago.

***

MISSION WITHOUT PERMISSION

CONTAINS SILLINESS AND SPOILERS

Well, it looked kind of amusing on the shelf, and what's the worst that can happen? There's nothing wrong with harmless teen frippery and silly PG-rated action movies for the younger crowd, and the kid-friendly genre movies of a generation past weren't any kind of lasting masterpiece either. So long as it's light, fun and rattles along reasonably efficiently and doesn't take too long, its failure to match up to Vertigo or Citizen Kane is hardly a strike against it.

What it doesn't say on the DVD box except in the credits block is that Mission Without Permission is an early lead appearance for Kristen Stewart some four years before the outbreak of Twilight. Little Miss Grumpyknickers stars as an obsessive climber who gets together with two friends to rob a hi-tech bank so she can pay for her dad's life-saving but experimental (and expensive) medical treatment. Her mother (Jennifer Beals) just happens to have been hired by the bank to install a foolproof and impregnable security system which cannot possibly be circumvented - unless you're very good at climbing and have a computer hacker accomplice who can also face down the attack dogs, and another who can customise a set of go-karts to slip under the security shutters...

Surprisingly it's directed by Bart Freundlich, who started out with the dreary family drama The Myth Of Fingerprints which I can still remember drifting sleepwards halfway through. Mission Without Permission is twaddle of course, but it's inoffensive twaddle, nobody gets hurt, and it's over and done in 90 minutes or so. As a disposable distraction it's adequate enough: the bank manager is an easy boo-hiss villain, Stewart is only on half-sulk rather than the Full-On Bella Mope, and the silliness of the caper makes it a generally palatable enterprise. If I'd paid more than 25p I'd probably feel I hadn't got my money's worth, but then I'm not really the target audience. Retitled from Catch That Kid, for absolutely no reason whatsoever.

**

Miseryguts:

Sunday, 19 October 2014

ANNABELLE

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS AND OH GOD IT'S BEHIND YOU

The number of horror films that have had me leaving the lights on overnight has been very small, even over the thirty years that I've been watching horror movies on a pretty regular basis. Splattery gore epics and slashers have never given me sleepless nights, and I don't even think I've ever had a nightmare stemming from a late-night rewatch of The Evil Dead or A Nightmare On Elm Street. But in recent years there have been a welcome few that have seeped back in my mind unbidden, and two of the most effective have been from the James Wan/Leigh Whannell Axis Of Creepiness. And I don't mean the Saw movies. The first Insidious pulled off the effect brilliantly, once in the film itself and then several nights later when I was alone in my flat. And to a lesser extent The Conjuring, which royally creeped me out in the cinema though I didn't suffer afterwards to the same extent.

Annabelle takes the terrifying-looking doll from the opening of The Conjuring, and makes it/her the conduit for an evil spirit looking for a soul. It's 1970 and the expectant Gordons acquire an Annabelle doll, supposedly a rare collector's item but in reality a freaky-looking porcelain nightmare than any faintly sentient person would chuck into a blast furnace before ever bringing it into their house. Then a pair of Mansonite occultists bursts in and attack them, blood gets on the doll and it seems then to be possessed. Spooky stuff starts happening: doors open, rocking chairs move, appliances come on by themselves....

It isn't in the same chilling league as The Conjuring, but it's still pretty creepy while it's on, with nice period detail and one genuinely "can't look, must look" sequence with a near-invisible demon in the basement. Because the Wan/Whannell films locate their horrors in recognisable, mundane realities rather than apocalyptic zombie wastelands or shadowy vampiric castles, they simply suggest that these hauntings, possessions and demonic infestations could as easily happen to you as to the average families in the films. And it works. But for all that, and the obvious nods to Rosemary's Baby (the couple are Mia and Jon Gordon, closely referencing the three stars of the Polanski film) it's not as downright unsettling as Insidious or The Conjuring were. It's a perfectly decent, solid multiplex horror movie, but I didn't really need the lights on afterwards and I don't think there's much further mileage in any more Annabelle movies.

***

WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE

CONTAINS SPOILERS AND NO LAUGHS

Dear old Jean-Claude Van Damme. Back in the day he was great, with thoroughly enjoyable tough action movies like Sudden Death and Hard Target, or abject silliness like Tsui Hark's Knock Off. (Every Hollywood action star should make at least one film about exploding trousers.) But that was many years ago, and for quite a while now he’s been stuck in direct to video nonsense, none of which is anywhere near as much fun as his glory years. There is also the matter of age, of course: sure, he's obviously in far better shape than I am, but he was 52 when he made this and is approaching the point where he can't do those flying spinning kicks to miscreants' heads any more without the risk of putting his hip out. Still, Van Damme has always had a strange innocence about him, a peculiar charm which other DTV stars like Steven Seagal and Dolph Lundgren never possessed, and he was always oddly watchable. But in all his career, I can’t think of any Van Damme film as thoroughly tiresome as this one.

Welcome To The Jungle is for the most part a dreary and tasteless piece of knockabout comedy about office politics: the staff of an advertising agency are sent off for a team building weekend run by ex military badass Jean Claude Van Damme. But the pilot dies, JCVD is pushed off a cliff by a tiger, and the stranded office workers have to try to stay alive or risk descending into madness that is less Lord Of The Flies and more Cannibal Holocaust, except with more knob jokes. The group split into two: the handful of sane people who actually want to get off the island (including the drippy romantic leads), and everyone else drugged into submission by the Office Bastard, a lecherous scumbag who sets himself up as a tribal god....

It’s fairly obvious from about 2 minutes in that the much abused nice guy and the pretty girl will get together, because everyone else is either an idiot, an arsehole, or both. The humour is pretty basic, most of it isn’t even faintly amusing, and there is something badly wrong with a comedy when Jean Claude Van Damme is providing the (relatively) funniest moments. It’s only because the title was also used for a monumentally boring found footage cannibal movie that this isn’t the worst film ever made called Welcome To The Jungle. But it’s a close run thing. (Also not to be confused with the stupid Dwayne Johnson film that was also known as The Rundown, which was at least tolerable because it had Christopher Walken in it.)

*

SEEING DOUBLE

CONTAINS SPOILERS AND MEANINGLESS JIGGING ABOUT

Case for the defence: I am not, and never have been, an S Club fan. I know precisely zero of their songs and am only aware who one of the band were because she turned up in ITV's fun dinosaur show Primeval, and I honestly wouldn't know the others if I sat next to them on a bus. The only reasons I have this film on DVD are [1] the scriptwriters were Kim Fuller and Paul Alexander, who contributed to the disastrous seventh series of Red Dwarf, and [2] it was on sale for 10p in CEX. That's my story. And in fact, a mere two days after having watched the rampant intergalactic silliness of Seeing Double, I still couldn't name any of their songs because it's literally in one ear and out the other. The music does absolutely nothing for me, but that's the case for most modern pop music; it's just not my thing.

Obviously there's a comparison to be made with Spice World: The Movie, a film that again probably depends more than anything else on whether you like the band. And again, for me they're not good enough for me to go "Wow!" and not awful enough for me to go "Aaargh!"; they're just there. Seeing Double at least has more of a plot than Spice World, albeit a particularly bonkers one: a mad scientist wants to take over the world by cloning pop stars to capture the global teenage market. Bizarrely they've cloned S Club while still leaving the originals alive; they're promptly arrested and locked up because apparently pretending you're in S Club is a criminal offence. They escape, make it back to Los Angeles to find out what's going on and to confront their navel-less duplicates....

There are several songs, dance numbers involving a lot of jigging about and leaping up and down, one irresistible moment when the "real" Hannah wonders whether they are actually the clones rather than the originals, a castle full of lookalikes (apparently including Gareth Gates who [1] I didn't recognise and [2] actually plays himself) and fewer scenes of S Club interacting with their other selves than you might expect - you never really get to See Double. It's a shiny plastic diversion full of pretty people and pretty colours, 87 minutes of harmless and inoffensive silliness that does not linger in the memory. My only real problem is that CEX aren't going to buy it back if it only cost 10p, so one of the local charity shops will eventually find it in their donations box. Lucky them.

**

Or you could buy it here:

Sunday, 5 October 2014

GONE GIRL

CONTAINS SPOILERS, INCLUDING A FEW MAJOR ONES

These days I take a pretty dim view of the marketing of movies that are more than a month away, because I just can't stay excited about something that distant for that long, and the constant hyping of films that aren't yet finished just gets boring after a while. But in the sense that I still look forward to films at all beyond that arbitrary time limit, a new David Fincher thriller is, like a new Mann or De Palma or Tarantino (or even an Argento) something that still piques the interest. Even though Fincher has been off the boil of late, with his entirely redundant stab at The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and the tiresome The Social Network (sorry, but I'm incapable of giving a toss about smug millionaires squabbling over a website), you still hope. You hope in the way that Argento has another Tenebrae in him or De Palma another Dressed To Kill, that Fincher has another Se7en. Hell, you'll settle for another Alien 3 at this point.

Well, maybe he has, but not this time around: Gone Girl is alright, but not much more than that and it ends up as a disappointment. Has Ben Affleck murdered his wife Rosamund Pike and then made it look like an abduction, or has she genuinely been taken? Initially it does look like a simple disappearance, but gradually it seems that he may not be as innocent as he seems: the life insurance, the credit cards, the accusations of domestic violence in her diary. As Affleck's protestations grow ever less believable with every new revelation - not least his affair with one of his teenage students - and the media circus swarms around him, will the real truth ever come out?

I haven't read the book, but judging from the conversation between a couple of ladies behind me as I left the cinema, it sounds like it generally sticks fairly close. It's enjoyably twisty fare, playing with your loyalties between wifebeating, adulterous husband and treacherous, deceitful wife, and I liked spending the first chunk of the movie not sure whose side I was on. Still, mine not to spoil, but neither side of the central marital conflict comes out blameless: eventually I skewed towards Team Affleck, not because of any idiotic notion of gender solidarity but because Team Pike's crimes ultimately seem far more serious, even though she's far more interesting a character than he is. And the ending seems to punish him more than her, which felt unfair given what she'd done, and thus unsatisfying. It's difficult to detail the occasional plot niggles without revealing significant plot details, but it did leave me wondering how long it would be before certain supporting characters came forward and exposed the whole pack of lies (specifically, people who should have recognised Rosamund Pike).

Matters might have been helped if Fincher had hired one of his old composers like Howard Shore or Elliot Goldenthal to write the soundtrack: proper film composers who know the difference between a bassoon and a farting horse. Instead he's gone with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who don't. Rather than actual music, they've provided another tedious dronescape that gives the film precisely zero dramatic support, is sometimes actively distracting, and has the musical qualities of listening to some dial-up modems and old fridges. If you come out of the cinema humming the Gone Girl soundtrack people will just assume you've got some kind of bowel disorder. I've actually listened to most of the soundtrack album playing on Spotify since seeing the film and it took about 15 minutes for a genuinely recognisable musical sound to show up: a piano, and that piano line is doing nothing remarkable. A bolder and much more imaginative choice (and a choice scarcely less harmful to the drama) would have been to have no score at all.

It's smart, it looks great and it's also well played: I usually like Rosamund Pike anyway and she's got a lot to do here, and the big surprise is seeing Tyler Perry, best known for dressing up as an old woman in at least a dozen Madea movies that haven't been released in the UK and that pointless Alex Cross movie, stealing the best moments as a defence lawyer. One can understand the 18 certificate given one scene in particular, which harks back to Basic Instinct in its mix of sex and violence, and there's a sudden burst of "very strong language" (the C-word) towards the end which felt a little out of place, but much of the time it's fairly measured and serious and makes you wonder again how The Equalizer got away with a 15. The running time may look daunting, but it's well paced and I don't mind a hefty length of 149 minutes if it's from a director who knows what he's doing (a Uwe Boll film that runs for two and a half hours is not an appetising prospect). Overall I kind of liked the movie while still feeling disappointed with it: it's good but not great, worth seeing but there are annoyances in there.

***

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

THE EQUALIZER

CONTAINS SPOILERS AND OUCH

Without wanting to sound like a broken record, but this is yet another example of the BBFC showing grotesque leniency to a distributor who's asked for a lower certificate, and who's got it after frankly insignificant trims to a couple of moments from a film that's positively awash with blood and slaughter. There is no way on Earth that this spectacularly violent action thriller, far more graphic and sweary than the still-18 rated Die Hard, should have got away with a 15 since the minimal cuts have by definition placed it right on the dividing line between 15 and 18. Distributors should grow some balls and accept the adults-only rating that comes with an adults-only film, and the BBFC should remember that their job is not to issue meaningless certificates just to make the studios richer. It's not really an issue that the cuts have neutered the film - if you can spot the edits in amidst the remaining carnage you've a better eye than mine - but there does seem to be a growing obsession with getting audiences into films which are patently unsuitable for them.

Nominally it's based on the 1980s TV show with Edward Woodward: here The Equalizer is Denzel Washington, apparently an ordinary guy working in the US equivalent of Homebase. He's friendly, helpful, but keeps to himself....until a teenage girl (Chloe Grace Moretz) he occasionally chats to in an all-night diner gets beaten up and, as a "knight in a world without knights" (his literature choices aren't the subtlest signposts of the way the film's going), he feels a growing need to intervene. This ultimately means taking on, and taking down, most of the Russian Mafia, with the final showdown in Homebase amidst its shelves of barbed wire, drills and blowtorches....

All this is good nasty fun with a healthy dose of the kind of graphic violence we don't tend to get in movies any more, and I enjoyed it immensely. Sometimes you get a Denzel Washington badass action movie that's really bloody and not very good - Man On Fire for one - but even though this one takes a while to get going, preferring to spend its time establishing character (to the extent that one of his revenge missions takes place entirely offscreen; we just see him put the hammer back on the shelf afterwards), it's well put together, and nicely shot with an old-fashioned feel about it. Sure, it's not much of an intellectual piece: the villains are all nasty evil hateful murderous boo-hiss scum with not a likable corpuscle between them, and there's no surprise twist in the plot because there's barely a plot to start with.

Perhaps, if you're a bit of a beard-stroking Guardianista, you could also take issue with the film's gender representation. Of the five female speaking roles, two are hookers for whom things go extremely badly (one is played by Chloe Grace Moretz who, let's remember, is only seventeen), two of the others are supporting non-hooker victims, and the fifth merely provides a chunk of exposition. But this isn't a film for wet liberal sensibilities: it's a film for people who want to watch Denzel Washington hurt a lot of people with DIY implements, and marking it down for its attitude to the ladies is like knocking a star off Four Weddings And A Funeral for its lack of running chainsaws. As a grim, needlessly violent exploitation movie with lots of dead people and kill shots that would have made it a video nasty a generation ago, I enjoyed it far more than I suppose I should have.

****

Sunday, 28 September 2014

MAPS TO THE STARS

CONTAINS POSSIBLE SPOILERS

I know this has the whiff of heresy about it, but to my mind David Cronenberg hasn't done a really interesting film in a very long time, and a genuinely great one in even longer. There are two bona fide masterpieces in his back catalogue: The Fly and Videodrome, but since then his films have been getting more cerebral and more intellectual but far less emotionally rewarding. Oh, I know a lot of people raved about A History Of Violence and Eastern Promises (neither of which I thought were the classics everyone claimed), but Cosmopolis was tedious, wilfully obtuse drivel and A Dangerous Method needed far more in the way of of Keira Knightley shrieking and pulling grotesque faces and far less in the way of middle-aged blokes talking earnestly about the human mind. So, given that I've generally lost interest in Cronenberg since he forsook his gloopy horrors (Shivers is probably my favourite of those early films) in favour of dreary conversation pieces, the arrival of a new David Cronenberg film no longer appeals. And sadly that extends even to a David Cronenberg film set in Hollywood and boasting a dreaded 18 certificate.

Maps To The Stars is really two movies conjoined. One is an uncomfortable satire of insecure and neurotic movie types, most of whom could frankly do with being hit by a bus: ageing and fading star Julianne Moore haunted by her more famous mother, repulsive child star Evan Bird just out of rehab, pushy star mom Olivia Williams, nonsense-spouting shrink John Cusack. The last three of these are parents and child; into their lives comes long-estranged Mia Wasikowska, who proceeds to exact a psychological revenge on everyone....

With a narrative that includes drugs (medical and other), incest, child abuse, frank sex scenes and murder, Maps To The Stars doesn't lack for incident. But the trouble is that Cronenberg is so cold and remote that the whole film can't come to life. If the portrait of Hollywood as a sewer full of shallow basket cases and babbling infants is supposed to be comedic (which I'm not entirely sure about), it doesn't work: either this is normal SOP for movie people or they're beyond parody anyway. And then there's stuff which I just don't want to see: specifically Julianne Moore on the lavatory straining to poo. It's not exactly a plot point or a moment of character delineation, and has no business being there unless you're really interested in fart sounds.

Some might argue, of course, that Julianne Moore doing lavatory scenes, hands-on massage therapy in her underwear or nude FFM threesome scenes is "brave" and "fearless" acting. Me, I just think these are things I really don't want to see - and it's not that Moore is 53 years old: I don't want to look at, say, Juno Temple or the Olsen twins on the toilet either. Such images are not even best left to the imagination, but blanked completely, and Cronenberg (or anyone else) taking me there makes me very uncomfortable. Maps To The Stars is a better film than Cosmopolis, on the grounds that [1] Scooby-Doo: The Movie is a better film than Cosmopolis and [2] there is at least a narrative thread to events, even if it gets absurd towards the end, with one character in particular removed from proceedings in the most ludicrous manner. Again, as with Woody Allen and the "early funny ones", Cronenberg's "early nasty ones" are much more watchable, much more interesting and - again assuming Maps To The Stars is at heart a comedy - much more enjoyable.

**