Thursday, 20 November 2014

SPACE STATION 76

CONTAINS GROOVY SPOILERS

So I'm literally at a loss to know exactly what's wrong with this bizarre nostalgic retro pastiche (yes, another one) exercise in impeccable period detail at the expense of a plot, and by extension a film, that makes any sense at all. It's either a film from 2014 in which the human race had either developed long distance space travel back in the 1970s, or a vision of a possible future in which everyone behaves like they're in the 1970s for absolutely no reason. Rather than an imagined future that's now slipped into the past (2001: A Space Odyssey or TV's Space 1999) and got all the details wrong without the benefit of hindsight, maybe this is an imagined alternate past which gets the details right (because of hindsight) but can only make sense as a film if viewed from an even earlier past which can somehow access a pseudo-historical film from the future. Either that or it's just a massive cultural backstep into the gaudy fashions, attitudes and music of the mid-seventies. Either way, there's also the thorny subject of it not being any good at all.

Space Station 76 is less a science-fiction movie than a 70s sex comedy in the vein of Bob And Carol And Ted And Alice, except it doesn't have any jokes in it. Most of it's devoted to the sexual hangups and dysfunctions of the small group of people living and (presumably) working on a deep space refuelling station, as they go from adultery and jealousy to depression to therapy. The station's useless captain (Patrick Wilson) is wrestling with his homosexuality and frustrations after the departure of his Number 2 and the arrival of replacement Liv Tyler - making this the second Liv Tyler film with an imminent meteor attack.

The terrific production design looks back to the shiny white spacecraft of "old" SF rather than the dark, metallic ships from Alien onwards, there's a Neil Sedaka song on the soundtrack and marijuana plants grown in the biodome. But none of it's funny: it's as if they've decided the seventies ambience is enough to carry the movie and they don't actually need to do anything else. Indeed, it just leaves you wondering whether it was supposed to be a comedy in the first place (presumably it was, given the presence of a cryogenically frozen dog and an old lady in a stasis pod) or merely a fond look back at days gone by. If it's the former then there simply isn't enough humour there, and if it's the latter why bother with the space trappings? There are more than enough movies out there that don't just have the styles and fashions of the 1970s, they have the authenticity of the 1970s because that's when they were made. Why settle for a reproduction unless it's at least as good as its inspirational sources?

**

Monday, 17 November 2014

WOLFCOP

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS AND I'M SORRY BUT I JUST DON'T GET IT

It's a peculiar thing to have done in 2013: to make a film that looks and sounds and feels exactly like a movie from the mid-1980s. This kind of nostalgic retro pastiche can work: I still like and defend Death Proof in its evocation of the spirit of grindhouse, even though it's thirty minutes too long and the dialogue is far too obviously Tarantino-speak, Robert Rodriguez' Machete movies are enjoyable enough nonsense though too highly-budgeted for the kind of trashy exploitation it's celebrating, and Ti West's The House Of The Devil is a marvellously detailed recreation of 70s TV-movie which works beautifully as a horror film in its own right. Against that, something like Anna Biller's Viva manages to bring the horrid fashions, decor and attitudes of the 1970s to life, but it doesn't make it as an interesting film, and something like The Disco Exorcist is not just best left unmentioned but unwatched (if not unmade).

Wolfcop look like precisely the kind of thing that you'd have found on the rental shelves from Guild or Medusa in about 1987, an old-fashioned werewolf movie with rubbery gore effects, a high level of silliness and a low level of ambition. In fact, if they'd told you it was a long-forgotten and recently discovered entry in the largely unconnected Howling franchise, it wouldn't come as much of a surprise. Lou Garou (the film's only real joke, which doesn't make sense anyway) is a small-town deputy sheriff who mysteriously hasn't been fired for drunkenness or incompetence: one night, when out actually doing his job, he's attacked and subsequently becomes a werewolf. And then people start dying bloodily.... Might it have something to do with the death of Garou's father many years ago?

Why bother? Why go to all the trouble of deliberately crafting a movie to look exactly like something you wouldn't have been overly impressed by thirty years ago? It's not like they were aiming high and missed: recreating the feel of a rubbish horror video from the last century isn't by itself enough, and consciously designed cult movies never work. I wouldn't mind the 80s ambience if, as with House Of The Devil, the end result had been a decent movie in its own right. Sure it's not completely worthless, and it's nice to see werewolf transformations and gory splatter sequences using old-fashioned prosthetic effects work instead of clean but unconvincing CGI, but if it's a spoof it's not funny (it's not that I don't get the jokes, it's that I don't think there are very many in there) and if it's a straight horror it's certainly not scary. Either way, the prospect of a Wolfcop 2 as promised at the end isn't an exciting one.

**

IN THE BLOOD

CONTAINS SPOILERS AND BOREDOM

The first time I saw Gina Carano was in Steven Soderbergh's Haywire, essentially a Cynthia Rothrock movie that somehow just happened to have major A-list talent behind and in front of the camera: the likes of Michael Fassbender, Michael Douglas and Ewan McGregor did the acting and Carano punched everybody spectacularly in the head. Even more spectacularly, she also got to beat up Michelle Rodriguez in the deliriously enjoyable Fast And Furious 6. Against those films, what a contrast to this shoddy, atrociously shot cheapie that conspicuously fails to showcase former mixed martial arts champion Carano's ability to pound seven bags of soot out of people.

In The Blood has newlyweds Carano and Cam Gigandet honeymooning in the Dominican Republic (it's actually shot in Puerto Rico); with the exception of a fight in a nightclub run by Danny Trejo, they're having a pretty good time until Cam falls from a zipwire and the ambulance never brings him to any of the hospitals. Kidnap? Murder? The police even think she might have arranged it to inherit his money (he's rich, she isn't, and they both had a history of drug addiction). Obviously she has no alternative but to track her missing husband down by herself, which inevitably leads to several scenes of her inflicting pain on a succession of increasingly obnoxious villains....

It's directed by John Stockwell, who has a track record of efficient action thrillers in exotic locales: Into The Blue (the Bahamas), Paradise Lost (Brazil), Dark Tide (South Africa). By contrast, In The Blood is drab: it has a cheap digital look to it, and the numerous fight scenes are very poorly shot which is a pity because Gina Carano is very good at fighting. You wouldn't shoot elaborate dance numbers like this, so why grace an equally intricately choreographed combat sequence with the production values of the behind-the-scenes featurette on the DVD? It throws away the one thing the film had going for it, killing it stone dead.

*

Thursday, 13 November 2014

OUIJA

CONTAINS SPOILERS AND SURPRISES

It's perhaps expecting too much of modern horror B-movies aimed at the multiplex trade to pull any surprises, but this one has a doozy during the end credits. For most of the time it's a perfectly decent little movie in the creepy rather than gory traditions, following the domestic scares of Insidious and The Conjuring (and their less effective followups): more than enough of those "can't look, must look" sequences in which teens poke around in the recesses of one of those improbably large American houses, to which it was all I could do to not shout out "Don't go in the attic!", "Don't go in the basement!" or "Don't wander off down that scary underpass!".

Or indeed, "Don't play with the ouija board in the house where your best friend died mysteriously after playing with the very same ouija board!" Ouija has a very simple set-up in which a group get together to summon the spirit of their recently departed friend Debbie - however, it's not her they make contact with, but a young girl known as DZ, still lingering in the house and apparently still terrorised by her mother. Were these ghosts responsible for Debbie's unlikely suicide? And can they cleanse the house of its evil past, even as they get bumped off one by one?

There aren't any real surprises in Ouija: it's a formulaic Boo! effort straight from the template and it has no interest in doing anything other than making you jump every so often, which it manages more than adequately. (Granted, it's a pity no-one in the film knows how to pronounce ouija properly, referring to it throughout as weegie.) One pleasant development is that somehow they've managed the trick of making a modern horror movie without gracing any of the characters with negative traits. No-one swears, takes drugs, starts fights, gets drunk or cheats on their partners, no-one behaves like a swaggering sexist douchebag or a hyper-sexualised bitch. They're all reasonable people, which pays dividends in terms of audience sympathies when it comes to killing some of them off because you don't actually want them to die.

But the big surprise comes at the end. Because they started the film straight away with just the Universal logo, and left off the obligatory handful of animated production company idents, it wasn't until the credits ran at the end that I realised this was a film from Platinum Dunes, the company behind the recent rash of wildly variable horror remakes including The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, A Nightmare On Elm Street and Friday The 13th (not variable between good and bad, but between bad and very bad). Yes: Ouija is a film that has the sticky fingermarks of Michael Bay on it yet still manages to not stink the building out like a decomposing skunk. I enjoyed it already but hell, it gets an extra star just for achieving that.

****

PLASTIC

CONTAINS SPOILERS AND BASTARDS

There's a secret to con-artist crime capers, and indeed most movies designed primarily as entertainment, and it's a secret which has entirely eluded the makers of this cataclysmically witless piece of boneheaded garbage. It's a very simple idea: don't make your characters into hateful dicks. Don't write your leads as crass, amoral, laddish oafs that even the most imbecilic Nuts reader won't want to spend time with. Don't give them a leering, barely Neanderthal approach to women and a clear conscience when it comes to stealing and ripping people off. Julian Gilbey's wretched, piss-pathetic apology for a teenage episode of Hustle offers us four swaggering, despicable bellends, all of whom you'd quite happily push under a combine harvester. They're the heroes of the piece, but against their apparently hilarious antics the bloodier and more serious muscle of grown-up criminals is actually more palatable. Our principal hero is Ed Speleers, star of the atrocious Love Bite and it's honestly a tough call as to whether that's a more shameful piece of rubbish.

Plastic has our scumbag foursome running a string of credit card frauds and identity thefts, amassing a stack of cloned cards and quickly purchased goods to sell on for untraceable cash. But they fall foul of a serious gangster (Thomas Kretschmann) who gives them two weeks to pay him two million pounds or they can dig their own graves. With the aid of the sort-of-almost girlfriend of the group's leader, they all jet off to Florida to swindle some big-time millionaires - except they're so monumentally idiotic they blow their own scheme and end up constructing an entirely new con job which involves swiping a case of diamonds by pretending to be a Brunei prince. Can they get the money together, or might some of the group be plotting to take it all for themselves?

Whatever. I just spent most of the running time hoping the smug little sods would die very horribly and I hated the fact that they won in the end - it's "based on a true story" and "the diamonds were never recovered", if you believe the opening and closing captions. Justice, even movie justice, is barely served in a film in which one of the group gets clean away with the loot and two of them get absurdly lenient jail terms. Thoroughly depressing, artistically empty and full of more obnoxious and morally repugnant bastards than any film since Downfall, it's probably the worst film of 2014 and certainly the one I most regret adding to my rental list.

*

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

THE ALPHABET KILLER

CONTAINS CPOILERS

I'm usually a sucker for a serial killer movie. Whether the focus is on the cops, FBI agents or other interested parties tracking down a homicidal maniac, or said maniac's ingenious methods and twisted motivations, I'm invariably far more interested than I am in a sloppy romantic comedy or an energetic youth musical. From slashers to police procedurals to unflinching psychological examinations of twisted minds, from The Silence Of The Lambs to He Knows You're Alone - my only real bugbear would be true crime movies in which I'm expected to enjoy details reconstructions and reenactments of real murders; you might as well put a laugh track on Crimewatch.

I didn't know The Alphabet Killer was (loosely) based on a real case from the 1970s: a killer specialising in young women with matching initials and leaving the bodies in towns beginning with the same letter (the film changes the names but retains the sequence of letters). But given that the film's lead detective routinely hallucinates the zombie-like spectres of the victims, it's questionable just how close to reality it actually is. One of the lead cops on the case suffers a complete mental collapse, plagued by visions of the dead girls. Years later she's demoted to a routine filing job in the records department, but the killer returns, as do the ghosts....

It's not a very good movie, but it does at least have a strong cast headed by Eliza Dushku (star of director Rob Schmidt's enjoyably gruesome TCSM cover Wrong Turn) as the obsessed cop. Cary Elwes and the always reliable Michael Ironside. So it's watchable enough, but it doesn't hang together as it feels the need for an inconclusive ending ("the killer was never caught"), and the killer's identity and the contrivances that lead Dushku to the final realisation don't really work dramatically because it's just too much of a coincidence. A routine, competent time-passer, but nothing more than that.

**

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PREPPIES

CONTAINS.... MEH

I've never been a massive fan of the American teen sex comedy. Obviously the shadow of Porky's and Revenge Of The Nerds (and to a lesser extent their sequels) hangs long and gloomy over the genre, and while this particular example isn't anywhere near as wretched and grotesque as, say, Screwballs 2: Loose Screws (which incredibly got a UK cinema release: I saw it on a double bill with the unjustly neglected sleaze classic Vice Squad), it's still pretty firm evidence that gauche American teenagers desperately trying to get laid is one of the most tiresome and depressing subjects imaginable for a major motion picture,

Preppies actually has a vague sliver of social satire about the class structure and the rich-poor divide, but unfortunately it doesn't do anything interesting with it. Our heroes are an old money trio of rich college boys spending the weekend revising for a vital economics exam, while simultaneously trying to get off with a trio of local but socially inferior hotties (and in the case of two of them, their long-term but unaccommodating girlfriends). What the boys don't know, however, is that the aforementioned hotties have been hired to keep their minds off the textbooks so they'll fail the exam, flunk college entirely and thus not qualify for a $50 million inheritance....

It's all very silly, with half the cast putting on exaggerated silly voices as posh Ivy League rich kids, and if it's hard to actually like, it's also hard to hate. Essentially it's good-natured rather than mean-spirited, and it doesn't revolve exclusively around naked women, which is actually odd since Chuck Vincent is one of those directors who spent a lot of time making porn movies as well as "legit" softcore sex thrillers and comedies (Hollywood Hot Tubs is another of his, which despite it sounding utter drivel I'm now rather interested in tracking down). The humour is very broad, and it's not particularly funny, but at least it never gets actively offensive or embarrassing. That there are far worse examples of the campus smut movie out there isn't much of recommendation, though.

*

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.

***