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.

**

NIGHTMARE AT NOON

CONTAINS SPOILERS AND SHOCK THAT IT ACTUALLY TURNS OUT TO BE OKAY

Nico Mastorakis is probably best known for Island Of Death, the spectacularly sleazy and thoroughly revolting movie which ended up on the video nasties list where, frankly, it can stay as far as I'm concerned. After that attention grabbing debut, Mastorakis churned out a number of routine thrillers, horror movies and general nonsense, mostly ranging from the poor (Blind Date) to the very poor (The Zero Boys) via the silly but fun (Hired To Kill), so possibly the best film he made is actually this pacy and enjoyable action movie with decent stuntwork, a reliable cast of B-movie stalwarts, all laced with references to old westerns (though it's a pity the Westerns idea didn't extend to a twangy soundtrack rather than the early Hans Zimmer synths.)

Despite those nods, Nightmare At Noon is more of a cross between a zombie movie and an ecologically aware thriller like Graham Baker's Impulse. Mysterious (and possibly foreign) albino Brion James unleashes a luminous green toxin into the water supply to see what happens to the small Utah town downriver. But he's reckoned without vacationing showbiz lawyer Wings Hauser, ex-cop turned drifter Bo Hopkins, and local Sheriff George Kennedy, as the toxin turns the townspeople into unreasoning, green-skinned homicidal maniacs...

It's the kind of no-nonsense B-movie that got shunted off on to video way back in the late 1980s; fortunately it's also the kind of no-nonsense B-movie that gives B-movies a good name. The cast are all good value; George Kennedy is a legend anyway, although his physical reaction as the toxin starts to take effect does rather give the impression that he shouldn't have had the fish (it also doesn't help that this was made just before he went full comedy in The Naked Gun). But, with some decently staged action sequences outweighing the faintly comical look of a town full of incredible hulks, Nightmare At Noon is a perfectly decent discovery, and another reminder that there are minor forgotten treasures to be unearthed from the 1980s.

***

THE GORILLA

NOTHING WORTH SPOILING, BUT SPOILERS ANYWAY

Even allowing for the fact that what I know about humour wouldn't fill the back of a stamp even if you typed it in really large letters, it's probably still fair to say that only the best humour is timeless. Real comic genius lasts forever, and there's a very good reason why we don't laugh at Old Mother Riley any more. (Opinion is divided as to whether we laughed at Old Mother Riley even then; that said, a lot of people seem to be laughing at Mrs Brown's Boys which is essentially the same thing with added comedy swearing.) The Marx Brothers at their best are still funny, and A Night At The Opera will doubtless last until the end of time; meanwhile, any random episode of On The Buses or George And Mildred now just looks baffling.

The Ritz Brothers were a very poor man's Marx Brothers indulging in backchat, slapstick and pulling faces, and it's frankly difficult to tell whether The Gorilla was a suitable vehicle for their talents: were they good performers trapped in a terrible film or terrible performers trapped in a terrible film? When Bela Lugosi is getting more laughs from his sinister butler role than the above-the-title comedy troupe, something's gone horribly wrong but it's hard to say exactly what. The Ritzes play gurning halfwitted detectives called in to protect a millionaire (Lionel Atwill) after death threats from of a mysterious serial killer: cue lots of shrieking, running hysterically from room to room, and pulling faces.

By 1939, Hollywood was putting out proper films like Gone With The Wind, Stagecoach and The Wizard Of Oz, so to see a major studio like 20th Century Fox putting out a creaky stage farce as primitive and shoddy as this is quite a surprise. It is of course absolute rubbish which has probably only survived this long by apparently falling into the public domain, since no modern distributor with all their pegs in the right holes would ever consider stumping up the money to release this. I shall not be attempting to track down any other films starring the Ritz Brothers, because I'm already fifty and there's always housework to do.

*

SCI-FIGHTER

YOU HAVE REACHED SPOILER LEVEL 3

Nothing to do with Peter Svatek's Sci-Fighters, this is probably the stupidest and most idiotic attempt to fuse the martial arts genre with the multilevel beat-em-up video game, through the medium of very badly thought out virtual reality. Featuring the dazzling fighting talents of about a dozen top martial arts champions, along with the equally dazzling acting talents of precisely nobody (including Cynthia Rothrock and Don "The Dragon" Wilson), it's a film in which absolutely nothing works at all.

Sci-Fighter is a fantastically detailed VR kung-fu game originally conceived as a training simulator for top cops, but its inventor decides to give it to his moody grandson as a birthday present. Unfortunately the kid gets stuck inside the game, and his dad (Don "The Dragon" Wilson) has to go into the game himself and win every level in order to rescue the kid, or be trapped in there forever with him as a sentient computer virus is corrupting the game around them...

It's absolute rubbish, in which the rules of the game are not just incomprehensible but contradictory, to the extent that Wilson even has a dream sequence within the game - and even that's not the stupidest thing on show. Why do they let the machine run down precious battery power when the plug is lying within about six inches of the wall socket? Why does the games inventor not have a set of cheat codes to deactivate all the fighters throughout the game? And why is Cynthia Rothrock (who I generally like but is sadly past her prime here) depicted in the game as well as in reality, and then not given any serious ass-kicking to do? Even the fight scenes, which are usually the saving grace of terrible martial arts films, don’t have any real impact. Pretty worthless.

*

JACK TILLMAN: THE SURVIVALIST

CONTAINS SPOILERS, ISH

Many years ago, before I developed much of an interest in, and indeed obsession with, film, I used to actually buy and read books, believe it or not. I distinctly remember obtaining the first two or three of a series of tacky pulp paperbacks called The Survivalist, detailing the adventures of a top CIA agent and weapons specialist trying to survive and keep his family together in a United States blasted apart in a nuclear war and Soviet invasion. Even then, even I could tell that this was imbecilic flagwaving shooty nonsense, and I gave up reading them very quickly. But then a movie showed up under the same title, and appeared to tell exactly the same story in exactly the same shooty way.

In the event, Jack Tillman: The Survivalist turns out not to be based on that series of novels, although it might as well be as it ploughs much the same furrow. Tough Texan construction man Steve Railsback has to travel north to find his son after a nuclear bomb goes off in Russia and, for no particularly convincing reason, the entire American system of government collapses in the space of about 10 minutes. Travel is forbidden, finances frozen, the National Guard are out on the streets and the previously civilised population swiftly turn into homicidal maniacs. The more immediate danger, however, is loonie National Guardsman Marjoe Gortner seizing the opportunity to pursue his decades-long feud with Railsback....

It desperately wants to be Mad Max, but frankly it lacks the raw visceral excitement, with the one major chase scene apparently taking place well within the speed limit and, rather than the dazzling vehicular mayhem we have come to demand from post-Apocalypse cinema, we only get as few people falling off their motorbikes as they can possibly get away with. Indeed the whole film is cheap and unspectacular, looking more like a bog standard TV-movie than a proper film. Maybe if it had been allowed to be considerably nastier and crazier and more sadistic, it might have been more fun. As it is, it's pretty mediocre stuff.

*