Monday, 14 April 2014

THE QUIET ONES

SHHHHHHH! SPOILERS!

After a few false starts, the new incarnation of Hammer films seems to be picking up nicely. Beyond The Rave was an insult, Let Me In and The Resident were Hammer films in name only and Wake Wood just wasn't interesting enough. It was only with the genuinely scary The Woman In Black that you could honestly say that Hammer was back in business: the business of proper British gothic horror movies. Period setting, big spooky house, an emphasis on atmosphere rather than gore and seriousness rather than jokes.

The latest Hammer, The Quiet Ones, generally ticks all those boxes even though the period setting only goes back as far as 1974 (which is actually around the same time period as Old Hammer's contemporary films), where beardy professor Jared Harris is seeking to cure mental illness by rejecting all that paranormal twaddle and treating poltergeist activity as something that can be transferred out of the body and mind of the sufferer. Or some such nonsense. His plan to cure, in effect to exorcise, a troubled young girl essentially involves locking her up and regularly torturing her, with the help of a couple of his students and a cameraman recording everything on film stock. But the girl's history is far more than just a case of ectoplasm and moving furniture...

Two basic tropes of modern horror cinema are thoroughly plundered here. The first is seeing a lot of "found footage" from the camera's POV, though it's slightly less annoying than usual as it looks like grainy film rather than ugly digital video, and at least it's within a non-found context. The second is its allegiance to the school of what Mark Kermode has dubbed "quiet...quiet...quiet...quiet...BANG!!!!!", wherein long, slow silences are suddenly broken by loud noises and dischordant orchestral stingers and a scary face or something appearing out of nowhere making you jump out of your skin. Which it certainly does, but it's not that much of an achievement. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg could make you jump out of your skin by sneaking up behind you while wearing a Chucky mask and yelling Boo! into your ear.

But that's okay. The rules of horror movies have changed over the years and a sudden shock with an expertly timed BANG! is part of the game, which really wasn't the case in Old Hammer's heyday. There's still has a terrific atmosphere about it, a great country house setting, some unbearably creepy "can't look, must look" silences, and if Jared Harris wants to spend the next ten years playing what are basically the Peter Cushing roles, that would be fine with me. The bottom line is I enjoyed it and it made me jump and cover my eyes. Even so, I'm not sure it made sense, there are some very iffy CGI fire effects, and the intriguing title is thrown away in one line of dialogue in a moment that cried out for explanation. But in the absence of Hammer's patented classic properties (Dracula has been done to death, to the point where even Dario Argento can't make anything of it, and Frankenstein has been reduced to sub-Underworld shenanigans), The Quiet Ones is probably the best of authentic Hammer we're likely to get. Worth a look.

***

THE LAST DAYS ON MARS

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS

In theory, this is precisely the kind of film I love. I've always been a sucker for movies in spaceships, space stations and interplanetary expeditions, from Alien and 2001 (most of it, anyway) through to the likes of Event Horizon or Supernova: set the thing on a spaceship or an orbiter and as far as I'm concerned you're halfway there. Obviously there's some absolute garbage in this particular subgenre: the amateur night idiocy of Dracula 3000 or the screaming manure of Apollo 18, but generally speaking I'm more excited by a Titan Find or an Inseminoid than perhaps I should. And if not a spaceship, then Mars: Red Planet, two recent movies called Stranded (neither of them terrible), Brian De Palma's flawed but fascinating Mission To Mars....

So maybe I liked The Last Days On Mars a smidgen more than it perhaps deserves purely on its genre genetics. With just 20 hours left of a six-month research mission (including Liev Schrieber, Romola Garai, Olivia Williams and Elias Koteas) to a bleak Martian dustbowl before the lander picks them up to take them back to Earth, one of the team suddenly finds traces of microscopic biological activity - life - and rushes off to claim his discovery rather than leave it for the next team to claim the glory. But this new bacterium starts to infect the humans, turning them into undead zombie monsters and picking the remainder off one by one....

So it's a bit like Alien, a bit like Event Horizon, a bit like Red Planet. And on my way out of the cinema I had a brief chat with someone who'd sat behind me, and he reckoned it was a close cousin of a film called The Dark Side Of The Moon, which I did see back in 1990 but I'd completely forgotten about in the intervening 24 years (though needless to say I am now itching to revisit). Originality is hardly the film's strong suit, but then it's a throwback movie harking back to the days of the kind of cheap spacebound quickies that used to turn up as video premieres on Guild and Medusa Home Video, so unoriginality is in its DNA. And I don't necessarily mind second hand plotting if it's done well enough, and to my mind it is here.

It's a throwaway movie as well as a throwback one: strangely it hit UK cinemas two days after it appeared on Netflix USA, which is really its natural home. Yet for all its faults (awful dialogue, simplistic characters, general cheesiness) I had a lot of fun watching it in a largely empty multiplex screen: it's the kind of SF movie I go for rather than the airless artiness of something like Under The Skin, even when it gets silly (if there's no pulse, surely there's no blood flow around the body, so what's the point in injecting drugs?). Yes, The Last Days On Mars is utter tosh, but it's perfectly good tosh. A UK/Ireland co-production, with Jordan standing in for the Martian wastelands.

***

RUNNER RUNNER

SPOILER SPOILER

Another blind, shiny, colourful but empty thriller with no real depth to it, another watchable B-movie full of pretty people in sunny locations. It's technically fine, it isn't actively dull, it rattles along pleasantly enough for its 91 minutes and doesn't outstay its welcome, and it has little to distinguish it from a primetime TV show. There's no real flair or panache, no character, it may be passable but it's never anything more than passable, and it never feels like anything more than a time filler.

Runner Runner is apparently a poker term, so probably meaningless to anyone who doesn't know the difference between going south and going cow (thanks, Wikipedia). Justin Timberlake jets down to Costa Rica to confront Ben Affleck, the boss of the offshore gambling website that's cheated him of all his money (which he needed to keep up with his Princeton fees): Affleck offers to take him on as his assistant. Seduced by the prospect of [1] easy millions and [2] Gemma Arterton, he signs up - but is immediately pressured by the FBI into finding evidence against Affleck, or face jail himself on cooked-up drugs charges....

It's okay but nothing that exciting: Timberlake is a fairly charmless and uninteresting lead, and Affleck is basically doing a generic slimy villain performance. Of slightly more interest is that one of the production companies involved is Leonardo DiCaprio's Appian Way (DiCaprio is one of the film's producers), leading one to speculate as to whether he was actually going to be in this at some point. And since it would have come between The Great Gatsby and The Wolf Of Wall Street, two other films in which he would have been dripping with wealth, maybe he decided not to? Trouble is, if you're idly musing about alternate casting as the movie's actually running, then the movie isn't really gripping you. Runner Runner isn't awful, it's a perfectly functional rental which is entertaining enough while it's on but scarcely memorable or noteworthy.

***

Er....

Friday, 4 April 2014

THE RAID 2

CONTAINS OOOF SOME OUCH SPOILERS AAARGH

Violent movies? You want really violent movies? Put down those DVDs of The Expendables 2 and A Good Day To Die Hard, they're My Little Pony and The Care Bears next to The Raid, the fantastic Indonesian clobberfest of 2012 in which a small squad of indestructible cops take on a thirty-storey block full of homicidal maniacs and beat seven shades of soot out of every single one of them. It was mad, relentless and insanely violent: a stripped-down action movie that made Steven Seagal's legendary mastery of martial arts look like Nureyev limbering up for the sad bit out of Swan Lake. And now: put down that DVD of The Raid.

The Raid 2 is a league above even The Raid: it's not just "more of the same", but bigger, longer, deeper. Two hours after the events of the first film, supercop Rama (Iko Uwais) is placed undercover in jail, to get close to Uco (Ucok according to the IMDb), the son of a leading politician/gangster and find evidence of police corruption. He gains his target's trust by saving him from an assassination attempt: when he gets out of jail he finds himself at the heart of a criminal organisation. But gang war is about to kick off....

Yeah, plot, whatever. There's a fight in a toilet, a fight in a porn studio, a fight in a nightclub, a fight in an alley, a fight on a train. There are fights with hammers, knives, baseball bats. There's an absolutely astonishing car chase (including a four-on-one fight in one of the cars) that you quite honestly won't believe. And it's done almost entirely for real rather than CGI, with minimal use of computer trickery (Hollywood movies apparently reach for the green screen every time a big-name star doesn't want to mess his hair up). The result is a series of breathtaking, eye-boggling action sequences in which bones are broken and heads are punched: I haven't winced at anything in a cinema since someone smashed their own ankle with a cistern lid in one of the Saw movies but I winced several times in The Raid 2. I can only assume that if a stuntman didn't end the shoot with a fractured skull at the very least, he didn't get paid.

But it's not as if there's nothing but hundreds of guys smacking hell out of each other: there's a lot more going on than just that. While The Raid concentrated on one incident and stripped away everything unnecessary for a no-nonsense B-movie (backstories, social context, character detail), The Raid 2 has a far wider, more epic scope. It's no longer one tower block, it's a whole city; it's no longer one mid-level crime lord, it's the far more powerful gangsters at the top. Granted, you don't need to know much about gimmicky self-explanatory henchpersons like Baseball Bat Man and Hammer Girl, but other minor characters are given depth: a homeless machete-wielding assassin has marital and family problems just as the hero does; time is spent with the politician/gangster's thoroughly odious son doing nothing more than hanging out in a private club berating a hooker. The film also manages to rack up a decent level of suspense from the simple fact that we know what will happen to Rama if his new employers ever find out he's a cop: so how long before Uco finds the bug Rama's placed in his wallet? Or if they find Rama's phone, they could track down his (barely seen but emotionally crucial) wife and the child he's never seen. This isn't massively complicated character material; it's actually very simple but brilliantly effective.

And then there's a massive fight scene in which people are thumped and stabbed and shot and thrown against concrete walls and metal cabinets. Sure, the fight sequences are the film's strongest suit, and they're the main attraction, but they're well enough spaced that the 150 minute running time flies by in a delirious blur of testosterone, adrenalin and sheer disbelief. I absolutely adore The Raid 2 and I can't wait to see it again: it's genuinely astonishing and my favourite film of 2014 so far.

*****

THE LEGEND OF HERCULES

CONTAINS SOME MINOR SPOILERS

Whatever happened to Renny Harlin? Even after his voyage into found footage with The Dyatlov Pass Incident, you should really expect better than this arrant tosh. It isn't just a massive comedown from the big splashy action mayhem of Die Hard 2, Cliffhanger and The Long Kiss Goodnight, it's a comedown from the likes of DTV fare like Mindhunters and The Cleaner. Okay, I know once your career has been so thoroughly eviscerated by the failure of Cutthroat Island (which isn't actually a bad film, but still one of the great box-office catastrophes of all time) then it may be tough to get the large-scale projects afterwards, but even so the presence of "Directed by Renny Harlin" in the credits of what is basically a knock-off of 300 and Wrath Of The Titans is the only real surprise in the whole film.

Scott Adkins is the evil king whose endless thirst for conquest leads his queen to pray to the gods for help: Zeus responds by giving her a demigod son, Hercules (Kellan Lutz). Twenty years later, and the evil king marries off Herc's beloved Princess Hebe to Herc's evil brother, and sends Hercules on a suicide mission to Egypt. But luckily he's spared, sold into gladiatorial slavery and makes his way back to Greece to take back the throne and his bride....

Much of the plot of The Legend Of Hercules (the first of two Hercules movies this year) is basically Gladiator with visual nods to the 300 films (Scott Adkins seems almost to be channelling Gerard Butler's iconic performance as Shouty Fighty Maniac With Beard) and the cardboard silliness of Clash/Wrath Of The Titans, only somehow not as good as any of them. In fact it's barely on the level of Tarsem Singh's Immortals, though in its favour it's probably slightly better than Marcus Nispel's pointless Conan remake. It's not outright boring: it's watchable enough while it's on, and Kellan Lutz looks the part. But you should expect more from Renny Harlin. Thoroughly mediocre.

**

UNDER THE SKIN

CONTAINS SOMETHING....MIGHT BE A SPOILER, MIGHT BE A HORSE, IT'S DIFFICULT TO TELL

I don't demand a huge amount from movies: all I really ask is that you tell me a story, make it a good one, tell it well, and don't bore me. Nor am I an idiot: you don't need to spell everything out in Alphabetti Spaghetti for me, because I can fill in some of the blanks myself, and that's part of the fun sometimes. But do not, please, tell me a woolly and apparently incomplete story, tell it badly, and leave most of it unexplained and inconclusive. And again, do not bore me.

The basic thrust of Under The Skin would appear to be that Scarlett Johansson is a space alien in Glasgow, picking up single men in a Transit van and taking them back to her house where they're sucked into an all-consuming black fluid, presumably as food for something. Eventually she meets a man and stays with him, but she's shocked to discover sex: she flees into the woods, and is attacked by a park ranger who reveals her true form....

Or something. It's a wilfully obscure and opaque film, with no concessions made to the needs of an audience such as enough lighting to see anything through the visual murk, dialogue that's audible and discernible through thick accents, and actually bothering to give said audience enough information to work out what the hell is going on. Not everything needs to be explained through a loudhailer, but Under The Skin veers so far the other way it ends up as pretentious rubbish, as though director Jonathan Glazer is actively making it as offputting as possible. In some ways this is actually worse than DTV horror garbage like The Hospital and Heretic: those films are rubbish because their makers are talentless idiots, but Glazer shows far more contempt for his audience by refusing to allow them into "his" film which we're paying to see. Because he's an artist, you see. Fine: if you don't want to let me in, I'll just stand outside and throw rocks at it.

Sure you get scenes of Scarlett Johansson naked, but they're not erotic or sexy, and she's dressed down and frumped up so she can interact with real Glaswegians, Candid Camera style, without being recognised (fair enough: there were points where I didn't recognise her, and I'd only seen Captain America: The Winter Soldier a few days before). And sure, it sometimes has a nice mood of dreadful mystery to it. That doesn't alter the fact that it's a boring, glum, humourless and drab film: there are powerful and intriguing moments and some nice visuals (and one genuinely shocking moment of visual horror), but they're not enough. It all goes for naught if the poor sod in the stalls doesn't have some clue what's going on, and Glazer's evident belief that he's above such piddling trifles as mere storytelling makes his film difficult to watch and even more difficult to enjoy.

**

Friday, 28 March 2014

DIANA

BELIEVE IT OR NOT, CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS

If someone had submitted the script to a producer as a fictional piece, he'd have been thrown straight out of the building and had his typewriter melted down for scrap. It's so utterly implausible that the only way you could possibly have defused the absurdity would have been to play it for laughs, either by camping it up and dancing blindfold through the minefield of grotesque bad taste, or by giving it to Richard Curtis for the sweet/sour romcom treatment. Sadly Oliver Hirschbiegel opts for playing it straight and sincere, no matter how unbelievable things get, and the result is that Diana is mostly dull, closer to the inoffensive drama of The Queen than the much more interesting The Iron Lady.

Princes William and Harry get literal walk-on, walk-off appearances, otherwise the Royals themselves don't appear in the story of Diana's (Naomi Watts) relationship with Pakistan-born surgeon Hasnat Khan (Naveen Andrews). It appears to be love at first sight, but she's a princess and he's a commoner (and a Muslim), and with the press attention on her every move it's plainly doomed. Rather than accept the inevitable, "the most famous woman in the world" resorts to disguises, climbing over fences, becoming a mad bitch and a stalker (her own words), even visiting his family in Lahore. But ultimately it cannot work, and she takes up with Dodi Fayed instead....

Most of this is Sunday afternoon slush: indeed with a few snips for language it could play quite happily as a BBC2 matinee. But it doesn't have any dramatic oomph about it, it doesn't have any balls, it doesn't have any laughs. Nor does it go anywhere near explaining how Diana, who was many things but certainly not an idiot, could possibly have thought the relationship could have worked. Or why, having had so many bruising encounters with the paparazzi (who, frankly, are worthless parasitic pondscum the world could happily do without), she then practically invites them all to within zoom lens distance of Dodi's yacht.

Maybe it's still too soon. For all the obvious work by Naomi Watts, for all the wigs and frocks, for all the restagings of familiar moments (such as the Martin Bashir interview) it's as if the film is so scared of doing anything controversial that it would rather do nothing. Result: close on two hours of meticulously crafted but absurd piffle, laughable but impossible to laugh at. It's not terrible enough to offend or amuse, but it just doesn't work as a drama.

**

No sequel, then:

PARANOIA

CONTAINS SPOILERS, FOR ALL THAT IT MATTERS

Because it doesn't really matter. This is a film with none of those nasty rough edges: minimal swearing, minimal sexiness, minimal violence, a bland, wipe-clean sheet of machine-rolled plastic that couldn't hurt you if it was thrown in your face by a ninja. It's entirely safe, hollow and meaningless; 105 minutes of generic production-line emptiness. That's not to say it's terrible, that's not to say it's not passably entertaining while it's on, just that it's never anything more than a 12-certificate factory product.

I don't even know why it's called Paranoia: it should just be given a barcode. Liam Hemsworth is the buff computer whizz who's railroaded by his evil (and inexplicably Cockney) ex-CEO Gary Oldman into stealing a revolutionary cellphone prototype from his old rival Harrison Ford, otherwise Liam's looking at ten years for credit card fraud and his dad Richard Dreyfuss isn't coming off that oxygen tank any time soon. Can Liam perform a Mission: Impossible heist in the few minutes he can get the security cameras offline? Meanwhile the FBI are after him, and his new girlfriend, senior executive Amber Heard, is starting to suspect him....

There's nothing wrong with Paranoia; it's merely that it's never any better than that. Whenever Harrison Ford, Richard Dreyfuss and Gary Oldman are on screen the film picks up, because they know how to lift the material and put the serifs on the script's Arial typeface. It's directed by Robert Luketic, who made the similarly "whatever" Killers, a film with nothing on its mind except the arguably godlike physique of Ashton Kutcher and some safe, easily marketed action thrills. This is just as perfunctory, just as anonymous, just as devoid of personality. But while it's on, it's enjoyable enough in its way: chases, ticking clocks, plot twists, ruthless assassins, technological whizzery that's no more plausible than the sonic screwdriver. For a Friday night with some big name stars not exactly stretching themselves for the paycheque, it's fine.

***

They are out to get you.