Tuesday, 2 February 2016

BEVERLY HILLS NINJA

CONTAINS SPOILERS AND MILD DESPAIR

Sometimes you see a film and can't stop wondering what the script meetings were like. Maybe you can envisage the writer toiling endlessly at Microsoft Word, agonising over every comma, while surrounded by piles of research notes and dramatic flowcharts. Or you can imagine them roaring with hysterical laughter at every zinger they've crafted for Adam Sandler or Seth Rogen to kill stone dead. Maybe you can even hear their carefully tailored Spotify playlist, especially crafted to inspire their creativity even further.

I can't help feeling that in the case of Beverly Hills Ninja the meeting took less time than you'd need to soft boil an egg. "Here's the pitch: he's a fat, incompetent ninja and he falls over a lot," most likely with assorted cover versions of Kung Fu Fighting burbling away in the background. That's all there is to it: the late Chris Farley plays an imbecile ninja who, absurdly, cracks an international counterfeiting racket and, even more absurdly, cops off with the hot blonde at the end.

It's rubbish, obviously: a witless Ow My Balls parade of falling over, stupidity, silly voices, walking into walls, falling over, breaking things, setting things on fire, falling over, fighting and falling over for those who find Mr Bean too intellectually daunting. Sure, some of the falling over is funny (a couple of times, anyway), but aside from bonehead slapstick the film doesn't have much in its comedic armoury. No-one goes into a film called Beverly Hills Ninja expecting a Noel Coward script of glittering witticisms, but surely there should be room for something a little more sophisticated than an overweight bloke repeatedly hurting himself and behaving like an idiot while Kung Fu Fighting plays on the soundtrack. According to the IMDb, Chris Farley wept at the first screening.

**

BEWITCHED

DIDDLE-IDDLE-DEE! CONTAINS SPOILERS

Mediocre high-concept nonsense wherein nostril-wiggling witch Nicole Kidman decides to try and live like a real non-magical human by moving to Los Angeles and taking the lead role in a reboot of TV sitcom Bewitched (wherein a witch decides to try and live like a real non-magical human). The resultant mess of self-referential in-jokery and the collision of fantasy, fake reality, meta-reality and "real" reality (in which one of the other characters on the show is also played by a witch, and another previously unseen character turns up in the "real" world) would cause the Tardis to crash into the middle of the Sun in confused bafflement, and it has to be said that Bewitched's makers do not pull it off.

Already multi-layered matters are complicated further when she gets involved with her co-star, a thundering halfwit played by Will Ferrell who wants all the glory of the new show for himself; the trouble is that viewers only like the show for her and not for him. Meanwhile Michael Caine is probably the best thing on show, materialising every so often as Kidman's witchy dad to lech around young women, and Shirley MacLaine is another witchy actress playing a TV witch.

It's not any good at all, and Will Ferrell in particular is as thoroughly charmless as he ever is, but the film is occasionally amusing enough to more or less just about scrape under the wire. The TV studio background is interesting, though the sitcom they're all making looks terrible and the Kidman-Ferrell romance simply doesn't work. But at the very least it's never terrible enough to be actively annoying. Instead it's just something inconsequential, burbling merrily away to itself but never capturing your complete attention. Hardly worth the effort.

**

Thursday, 21 January 2016

STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS

MAJOR SPOILERS THERE ARE

So it's here. Finally. After all the hype and hyperbole, after all the leaks and rumours, teasers, trailers, tweets, Facebook statuses, fan hysteria, clickbait, listicles, online outrage (over everything from the 12A certificates to the race and gender of the main characters) and general senseless bellowing on a daily, even hourly, basis, at long last the seventh film in arguably the most culturally significant and influential movie franchise in history rolls into what looks like every single cinema on the planet. It's equally a film we prayed would be as good as the original trilogy as one we prayed would be better than the sequels.

Well, phew. Certainly Star Wars: The Force Awakens is several parsecs better than the prequels, but then eighty per cent of the entire universe is better than the prequels, including unexplained skin rashes and finding your mum going through your internet history, though admittedly most of us would be hard pressed to decide whether Jar Jar Binks or, say, Richard Littlejohn was more deserving of a massive smack in the mouth. Whether Episode 7 is better than the Luke/Vader trilogy is a much trickier question, if only because we watch those older films through such a haze of nostalgia. I'm no longer the young teenager thrilling to A New Hope (as it wasn't called) in the 1970s; I'm now a grumpy 50+ git who turns into Victor Meldrew every time the printer toner runs out.

In the event, it's a testament to how good the new film is that you don't mind the numerous callbacks to the first three films: at the centre of everyone's quest is a bleeping droid carrying secret Rebel information. There's a cantina full of strange alien lifeforms and a house band. There's a Death Star - except it's now called Starkiller Base, is an actual planet and can zap five worlds out of the sky with a single solar-powered blast. There are space dogfights and Jedi mind tricks, Tie fighters and a spectral uber-supervillain from the Dark Side, masked supervillains and incompetent stormtroopers, "surprise" parent-child relationships and someone who's much more familiar with The Force than they should be.

It's also testament to how good the two leads are that it really doesn't bother you that the characters from Star Wars 4-6 take a while to appear (and one of them doesn't show up until the movie's nearly done). Most of the Old Cast heavy lifting is done by Han Solo and Chewbacca this time out, but you actually forget that Leia, Luke and C-3PO are even in it until they arrive, because disenchanted stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) and deserted desert scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley) are compelling enough company and they make the film their own. She's salvaging the wrecks of AT-AT walkers and Star Destroyers on sand planet Jakku in exchange for survival rations, he's on the run from the First Order after freeing top Resistance pilot Poe (Oscar Isaac) from the fiendish clutches of masked Kylo Ren (Adam Driver)...

Which is all fine. And it's immeasurably better written than the Anakin Trilogy, basically because they've given George Lucas a large bag of banknotes and hired JJ Abrams, the rejuvenator of Star Trek, to make more Star Wars movies, only good. The end result is no Jar Jar and no midichlorians, better dialogue and a well-handled shock twist that actually works dramatically (no mean feat: I managed to stay spoiler-free for the five weeks until I was able to see it.) Against that, of course, is the fact that modern franchise movies have to set up and tease future instalments and The Force Awakens is no exception. Character traits of Rey in particular are clearly being manoeuvred into position for Episodes 8, 9 and 10 through 38, so this one isn't a standalone film (like the original Star Wars was) and so it doesn't have an entirely satisfying ending. And yes, you could say that about The Empire Strikes Back as well, and we all know how great that movie is.

A repeat viewing is almost certainly in order, partly to enjoy the John Williams score in context, partly to savour the nods to the earlier chapters, but mostly because it's thunderously good fun, and far better than we ever had any right to expect. They've got so much right that the occasional slip - you don't hire an actor of the calibre of Max Von Sydow and then give him nothing to do - really doesn't matter. It's probably going to be The Biggest Film Of All Time, and justifiably so (and not just because it's knocking Avatar off the perch). Great stuff.

****

Sunday, 17 January 2016

THE HATEFUL EIGHT

<< - - - ----- CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS ----- - - - >>

There are a number of lessons to be learned from Quentin Tarantino's new film, for audiences, for filmmakers in general and for Mr Q specifically. The first film to be shot in the Ultra Panavision 70 format since Khartoum, a film which is only slightly younger than I am, and released with an overture and an intermission as an exclusive Roadshow Presentation complete with a souvenir brochure, it's as much an attempt to revive a style of movie exhibition as The Grindhouse Project was to bring a nostalgic flush to those of us who at least like the idea of grubby fleapits running triple bills of trash and sleaze. And probably equally doomed, sadly. Still, we can all learn from the experience....

For us audiences, the main lesson to take home is that cinema rules, and the bigger the better. If you're watching The Hateful Eight on your tablet or your phone, then you're really not watching it: a home viewing is as pitiful a substitute for the Full Quentin as a battered VHS pan-and-scan tape of Suspiria is of the Full Dario. (That's even if you've paid for it, which at this point you haven't - so if you're watching a pirated stream, then you should gouge your eyes out in shame, you pathetic scum, because you don't deserve them.) In the full, insanely wide 2.76 aspect ratio that only a proper cinema can offer, even a substantial TV system isn't going to match up. You're cheating yourself, so get your backside to the biggest screen you can find. It's worth it. Secondly, we should accept the value of films aimed at adults: The Hateful Eight is a mainstream film going out to national cinemas with an 18 certificate and there's no question that the film thoroughly deserves it for gore, violence, swearing and racial slurs. Films for grownups, rather than dim teenagers, should be encouraged and the red 18 should be a badge of pride.

As for filmmakers: film trumps digital, both for shooting and for projection. I watched The Hateful Eight on 70mm on the massive screen at the Odeon Leicester Square (even if I was nine rows back in the balcony) and it looked fantastic, partly because it's shot on proper film rather than digital. Digital can look great, and sometimes it's so good you can't tell it's not celluloid, but there's something real about film that just doesn't translate into pixels and strings of binary code on a hard drive. I know digital is cheaper, and admittedly most films don't need it, but it just looks and feels so damn good on screen. Hire a good DP who knows what he's doing with lenses and filters and lights because he (or she) will turn even a sequence of half a dozen people arguing in a shack into something visually rich and exciting. While you're at it, hire a composer (such as Ennio Morricone, making a long-overdue return to American movies) who knows how to write for an orchestra rather than a bank of drones and drum machines, and who can convey moods with melodies and harmonies rather than ambient hums and thuds. These people might cost, but they're worth their corn because they will elevate your film.

The other thing I took away from The Hateful Eight is the sense that Quentin Tarantino really needs to learn the value of brevity. The Hateful Eight runs 167 or 187 minutes, allowing for the intermission and overture, and some slight editing between release versions, and certainly in the first chunk there's anything up to half an hour that could be lopped out to no ill effect. Tarantino is one of those directors who doesn't have the guiding hand of a producer or a test audience to suggest he trim it down a bit, and perhaps he should because the good stuff tends to get a bit diluted by the verbiage (see also Death Proof's action-to-prattle ratio). It may be good verbiage, but it gets in the way and there were stretches in Act One when I was actually getting a little bit bored and that's something I never thought I'd say about a Tarantino film. I'd also like to suggest he cut back on the N-word which is tossed liberally back and forth throughout by pretty much everyone, which I found wearing and tiresome, regardless of whether it's historically accurate for the post-Civil War setting.

As for the movie itself.... the first half, in which Storming Sam Jackson and Storming Kurt Russell arrive at a rest stop on the way to Red Rock (there to deliver prisoner Jennifer Jason Leigh to the new sheriff, who may or may not be Walton Goggins, and the hangman who may or may not be Tim Roth) and find themselves trapped for a couple of days by a blizzard with a handful of strangers who may or may not be who they say they are, gets a touch repetitive; a situation which isn't helped by everyone living up to their billing as thoroughly Hateful. However, post-intermission, events pick up dramatically as the film turns into a whodunnit (with Jackson solving the murder of someone we haven't seen and we weren't even sure was killed) and most of the cast getting messily and bloodily dead. There are obvious comparisons to Q's own Reservoir Dogs (Michael Madsen and others shout and kill one another in a confined space) and John Carpenter's The Thing (Kurt Russell and others argue in a snowbound shack as to who isn't who they say they are, and three tracks of Morricone's score to that film are dropped, surprisingly appropriately, into proceedings), but the film is its own beast, with everyone giving it some serious thespian welly and projecting to the rear stalls like the live theatre production it could so easily be.

Taken as a whole, The Hateful Eight is pretty damn good: I think I liked it more than Django Unchained but still probably prefer Inglourious Basterds and Kill Bill Vol 1. Quibbles about the overlength and racist abuse aside, and ignoring the fact that everyone's pretty much a scumbag (I'm not convinced that the mistreatment of Jennifer Jason Leigh's character is misogynist given that she's more thunderingly hateful than at least two of the others), it's a mesmerising watch, particularly in the second half when everything starts to come together. It's a pity it takes so long to get there, but when it does it's absolutely worth it. Particularly when projected on a massive screen from a 70mm print in Ultra Paravision.

****

Thursday, 7 January 2016

GOODBYE TO LANGUAGE

WOOF!

Every so often you decide to revisit something you never particularly liked, to see if your tastes have changed, to see if this time it just clicks or to see if he/she/it has improved. The example I usually go back to is something like the Paranormal Activity films, which I got steadily more fed up with as the series went on, to the extent that I passed on a couple of them and then poked my head round the door a few years later to see if they'd developed in any meaningful way. (They hadn't.) Every so often I have another stab at the Thunderball soundtrack, because I can't believe how much I hate it given how much I love John Barry's other Bond scores - but I can't ever play the CD to the end.

Or Jean-Luc Godard. Maybe I've just chosen the duffers in the JLG filmography, but after the triple whammy of Alphaville (took me three goes), A Bout De Souffle (probably loses something when not viewed in an early sixties Paris cinema surrounded by riots and Communists and a fug of Gauloises) and Weekend (tedious political hectoring-a-gogo) I was really minded to give up. But hey, it's only 68 minutes long, and some of the reviews seem positive, so what can possibly go wrong?

Watching Goodbye To Language is basically like watching an old man mumbling to himself (in French) while flipping randomly between the three lowest-rent channels on his Skybox: the Dog Walking Channel, the Show Us Your Bum Channel and the What's On These Old VHS Cassettes We Found In A Skip? Channel. It's a non-narrative random assemblage of assorted bits and pieces which could be threaded together in any order to precisely the same lack of effect. Detailing the plot is no more revealing than reading one of JL's old shopping lists, but amongst the highlights there's a dog, wandering about in the woods, or swimming in the river. Sometimes it's snowing, sometimes it's raining. There's a couple who stand around naked from time to time, occasionally they argue some abstruse philosophical point while he takes a dump and she stands in front of him. (Who the hell are these people?) For some reason her armchair is facing away from their widescreen TV. Are animals naked? Someone talks about Solzhenitsyn and Hitler, and Mary Shelley shows up towards the end. The screen goes blank occasionally but the waffle continues, occasionally overlaid with the same four sombre bars of Tchaikovsky's Fifth.

All of which I could more or less understand, if not enjoy, were it not slung together with the technical skill of a first-year Media student well on his way to scraping a D minus for his coursework and not the co-winner of the 2014 Cannes Jury Prize by the much-acclaimed homme vieux terrible of the Nouvelle Vague. Half of it looks to have been shot with Fisher-Price's My First Camcorder, with the background ambient sound cutting in and out and the music dropped in so cack-handedly you half expect that vinyl scratch sound effect every time it stops. Apparently bits of it are in brain-scrambling 3D in which your eyes will each be looking at different things. (I saw it flat.) It would be tempting (and very easy) to just back away slowly and inform the nursing staff that he's out of bed again, but surely, surely there has to be something more to it? What am I missing? I'm not the world's biggest dunce (shut up) but I simply don't get the joke - or does that make ME the joke?

Not that it makes a scrap of difference: Godard's experiment, if it is an experiment rather than an elaborate long-form prank in which he's been punking the highbrows for more than half a century with deliberately incomprehensible hogwash to see how long before they stop taking any notice of him, is an unwatchable bore, in however many dimensions it's viewed, and it's easily the least enjoyable or interesting film I've seen in a long time. My experiment, however, was a complete success as I can now safely write JLG off for at least another three years. I really have better things to do. And if I don't, I'll find some.

*

Thursday, 31 December 2015

LIST: THE WORST FILMS OF 2015

And at the other end of the scale...

Since the films I see are entirely down to my personal choice, I dodged any number of bullets this year; in the absence of any halfway good reason to go and see Pixels, for example, I obviously stayed away. Why wouldn't I? As usual, films qualify if they've had UK cinema releases in the calendar year according to Launching Films' schedules; whatever festival or preview shows they might have had. So of the regular releases I saw this year, these are the ten I liked least, in increasing order of displeasure:

10. FANTASTIC FOUR
A bit of a charmless mess which isn't up there with even the wobbliest of the current Marvel slate (or even the two earlier stabs at the F4 text). The projected 2017 release date for the sequel looks like either wishful thinking or a monumental delusion.

9. IRRATIONAL MAN
Woody Allen can be very variable, but this irritating drama is his least interesting for several years. This is one of his non-comedic ones, which isn't necessarily a bad thing (Blue Jasmine, and I rather like Interiors) but in this case it, and I, desperately needed some laughs.

8. THE WOMAN IN BLACK: ANGEL OF DEATH
Radcliffe-free, and largely scare-free, despite the numerous scary faces looming suddenly into camera, making you jump in the most basic and unsophisticated way imaginable. Very disappointing given the quality of the original.

7. SURVIVOR
The worst entry yet in Pierce Brosnan's ongoing quest to reinvent himself as a badass (along with The Novermber Man and No Escape): Brosnan is miscast as the villain, Milla Jovovich doesn't get to kick ass, it's all very dull and unlikeable.

6. THE FACE OF AN ANGEL
Rather than make a film about the Amanda Knox trial, Michael Winterbottom elects to make a film about how hard it is to make a film about it. No-one has yet to make a film about how hard it is to watch a film about how hard it is to make a film about it.

5. HITMAN: AGENT 47
I have no idea what this was about: all I can remember is a lot of fighting and chasing and shooting, about something or other, and the fact that it's no better than the frankly rubbish Hitman from a few years back.

4. FIFTY SHADES OF GREY
This badly needed the grubby hand of a Jess Franco at the helm; instead it's a tasteful, handsome and acceptably kinky romance between a couple of cardboard idiots. No fun, not even of the most disreputable kind.

3. THE GALLOWS
Poked my head round the door to see if found footage has developed in any way since The Blair Witch Project and the first Paranormal Activity. It hasn't. Same old schtick, same old tropes. Nothing new to see, move along.

2. UNHALLOWED GROUND
Despicable imbeciles run around a posh school at night while a historical demon with a big nose wanders around and something picks them off as part of a Satanic ritual. Barely amateur in all departments.

1. THE INTERVIEW
The worst film of the year, as much for its desperate lack of laughs (Seth Rogen isn't funny, James Franco isn't funny, both of them are supremely punchable) and its eschewing of political satire in favour of lowbrow bum and fart jokes, as for its shameful "watch this movie or the terrorists have won" sales tactic. Garbage.

In no particular order of intolerability, 2015 was also the year of Barely Lethal, Unfriended, Tokyo Tribe (hey for the incomprehensible Japanese gangland rap musical!), The Boy Next Door, Foxcatcher (yes!), The Falling (yes!!), Pasolini, The Duke Of Burgundy (yes!!!) and Age Of Kill. Fingers crossed that 2016 is a lot better, or at least that I get better at dodging the bullets.

Wednesday, 30 December 2015

LIST: THE BEST FILMS OF 2015

It's that time of year again: time to rummage through the year's movies and knock together some sort of Top Ten list. Was it a good year? Actually, not bad at all: even though the top spot has been pretty much inked in since May there were plenty of films hustling for a position on the list. The usual disclaimers apply: if they don't appear on Launching Films' release schedules for this year then they don't count, regardless of previews or festival screenings (sadly, my two favourite FrightFest films, We Are Still Here and Night Fare, don't qualify on that score). I missed a lot of films, either because the release was too small or through deliberate choice. In the case of the new Star Wars movie I just want to wait for the crowds to disperse and the kids to go back to school. (Hey: I'm not being paid to watch these things. My dollar, my rules.) But of the ones I saw, and liked, these are my Top Ten in ascending order:

10. THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN
As self-referential meta remake/sequels of (sadly) largely forgotten slasher movies go, this was pretty damn good: a gorgeous-looking and engaging remix of an AIP drive-in oddity that came and went without enough people noticing.

9. TOMORROWLAND: A WORLD BEYOND
Terrific, charming fantasy that was unfairly ignored on its theatrical release, but it's well worth seeing. Lovely retro design and a fantastic sense of wonder and excitement with so little cynicism that it perhaps borders on naive. Enjoyed it immensely.

8. ELECTRIC BOOGALOO: THE WILD UNTOLD STORY OF CANNON FILMS
Nostalgia overload: Cannon's quantity-over-quality approach led to a lot of terrible movies, some unfairly ignored weirdies (will someone please put The Apple out on UK Blu?), a lot of Chuck Norris and late-period Charles Bronson trash and a handful of actual classics. A fun documentary that made you wish Golan and Globus were still at it.

7. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE: ROGUE NATION
The highlight is the opera sequence, rather than the much-publicised aircraft stunt at the start, but the whole movie is terrific fun, if not quite up to the standard of the last one. These, rather than the Bournes, are the natural rivals to 007: globetrotting nonsense with a sense of humour and bags of ridiculous action.

6. JUPITER ASCENDING
A lot of people hated this, but they're just plain wrong. Bonkers spectacle, almost literally unspeakable dialogue, massively overblown, critically and commercially disastrous, but I enjoyed the hell out of it on a Flash Gordon level (even with the sudden inexplicable comedy detour into Brazil territory).

5. IT FOLLOWS
The best mainstream horror that made it to a general release, boasting an unusual bogeyman figure and infused with the sound and feel of vintage 80s horror movies (the Carpenter-style synth score, the suburban locale that's half Halloween's Haddonfield, half Elm Street). Thoroughly enjoyable and more than a little bit actually scary.

4. THE MARTIAN
Ridley Scott should never be let out of the SF box, because when he ventures into other territory we get absolute pish like Robin Hood and The Counsellor rather than the likes of Blade Runner, Alien and this interplanetary rescue drama in which Matt Damon has to keep himself [1] alive and [2] sane on a deserted, airless planet while Earth's premier boffins try and figure a way to get him back. Excellent.

3. SPECTRE
Bond is back, and Bond films are back, shorn of the angst and glumness now that Judi Dench's increasingly tiresome M(other) is out of the way and we can get back to colourful billionaire sociopaths and their grandiose schemes of destruction. A long-overdue sense of fun (including some actual jokes) and some superb action set-pieces make this the best Bond since the Dalton era at the very least.

2. A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT
As semi-Iranian arthouse vampire movies go, this is absolutely wonderful: beautifully photographed in black and white, stylish and hugely atmospheric.

1. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD
Was there any doubt? Twenty minutes of character, setup and dialogue, and close on two hours of dazzling, dizzying mayhem with cars, bikes and trucks smashing hell out of each other over and over and over again. Could not possibly have enjoyed it more.

Honourable mentions (in no particular order) to Shaun The Sheep Movie, White God, Krampus, Sicario, Ex Machina, Fast And Furious 7, Birdman, The Treatment, White Bird In A Blizzard and Clouds Of Sils Maria, which frankly would have made a perfectly decent Top Ten by themselves. That's not counting other titles I enjoyed perfectly well including Kingsman: The Secret Service (the final bum joke didn't annoy me nearly as much as it did everyone else) and Chappie. To my mind that counts as a pretty good year; fingers crossed 2016 keeps it up.

Sunday, 20 December 2015

CAROL

CONTAINS SPOILERS

It would be very easy to blather on cluelessly about how I really didn't like Carol, and how I didn't find it interesting and I never cared for any of the characters and I thought it was slow and dreary and lifeless and I spent chunks of the film wondering whether I should just cut my losses and leave. All that would be absolutely true. But there's more to it than that: why? How come pretty much everyone else has raved so enthusiastically about it? How come the major reviewers have lauded it as the best thing since whatever sliced bread was the best thing since? Is it a case of the entire army marching out of step with me? I mean, I don't generally take a huge amount of notice of critics, but if everyone tells you it's great then you start to wonder when you don't agree. After all, given that there are no wrong answers in art (opinions are not facts), and the notion that one should no more be pilloried for not liking Carol than be pilloried for not liking anchovies, baroque music or Frank Spencer, why do I feel so disappointed?

Not my usual thing? I don't think so: a glance at my first-time movie list for 2015 includes '40s British war movies, a Carry On film, creaky old whodunnits, European crime thrillers, modern emotional drama and a spot of sleazy Nazisploitation - and that's just from titles beginning with C. Sure, I may ingest too much in the way of dumbo slashers but I like to think I'm fairly open-minded. The mere fact of the film centring on a lesbian love affair doesn't count: it may not be the kind of thing I actively seek out, but I don't necessarily shy away either. I really liked Blue Is The Warmest Colour: it was one of my favourite films of that year, and that had nothing to do with the phwoooar blimey sex scenes that made up maybe ten minutes of the three hour running time. (I also recall admiring Desert Hearts back in the 1980s.)

Is it to do with the people involved? Well, maybe: it's true I'm not a huge fan. Velvet Goldmine and Poison didn't do anything for me, and Far From Heaven (the most comparable of Haynes' films to Carol) was kind of alright, but I enjoyed the oddly titled [Safe] a lot. Cate Blanchett has done a huge amount of stuff, some of which I've liked and some of which I haven't, and here she's playing very cold and difficult to connect with as a woman stuck in loveless matrimony (but loving motherhood). Rooney Mara's character is far more likeable (though incredibly, unbelievably naive at one point) as the other, younger half of the relationship.

On the technical side, I'm not sure about the overly grainy 16mm look of the film; maybe we're so used to clean and shiny digital now that real film stock looks like papyrus when compared to standard A4 paper, though I'm still looking forward eagerly to seeing The Hateful Eight in 70mm next year. And I've never been a fan of Carter Burwell, whose style of music has mostly felt too sombre and (frankly) miserable for my taste, but I guess it fits the sombre nature of the film. You can't fault the sets and costumes and period details, though, which all look spot on to my untutored eye.

So what is it? It's not like I give that much of a hoot what the proper critics think as they've recommended some absolute duffers over the years: it's always interesting to see, hear or read differing opinions, for or against, but I don't think I take any of them as Holy Writ. Here I'm left wondering whether we actually saw the same film. Maybe no-one wanted to be the lone voice confessing they didn't think Carol was All That? Or maybe it's just me, not liking anchovies and Frank Spencer. But that doesn't make me wrong.

**

Sunday, 13 December 2015

THE KILLERS

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS

I'll confess I'm not a massive fan of films of the 1940s: I generally like more recent productions and for me the Golden Age runs from the late seventies through the eighties. Still, I'm not entirely immune to the charms of much older movies and 1946's The Killers is an absolute corker of a vintage film noir that knocks the stuffing out of around eighty per cent of this year's shiny new attractions. Somehow I had never seen this before, but 68 years later it’s one of the highlights of the year: terse, tense, visually rich and always absorbing, an absolute revelation (especially if your recent viewing has included some less than prime Jean Claude Van Damme knockabouts).

Ernest Hemingway's original 1926 short story forms the opening act of the film: two hired guns arrive at a small-town diner and harass the staff and solitary customer while openly announcing their intent to kill the local gas station attendant, a man known as The Swede (Burt Lancaster in his film debut). But inexplicably, when The Swede gets word of this, he doesn't run, he doesn't fight, he just waits. The rest of the movie (partially scripted by an unbilled John Huston) has a surprisingly cheerful and casual insurance investigator (Edmond O’Brien) looking into the killing and uncovering The Swede’s past (presented as a series of flashbacks) as a washed-up boxer seduced into a life of crime by an alluring femme fatale (Ava Gardner), suckered into a payroll robbery and double-crossed for the loot….

It’s shot in that wonderful style of 40s noir: harsh, crisp black and white in which even scenes in darkened rooms are clearly visible, and it still looks fantastic today. The robbery sequence is a set piece highlight, filmed in one single crane shot with no cuts, and the earlier boxing scene is crunchingly painful. Burt Lancaster’s a star right from his first shots, Ava Gardner is gorgeous, and there’s a Miklos Rosza score (some of which was later reworked into the Dragnet theme) on top. Bottom line: I really enjoyed The Killers and it’s definitely worth picking up.

****

INFINI

CONTAI SPOILE

I've always loved space/horror movies. Any movie that's set on spaceships, space stations, colonies or deep space research bases, I'm generally far more interested than if they're set in Frinton or a small town somewhere in the Mid-West. Granted, apart from the Alien franchise (and not all of them) there aren't that many genuine space-based classics and there are more than a few utter stinkers (Dracula 3000 and Leprechaun 4 in particular), but I'll always cheer schlocky SF films as diverse as Inseminoid, Event Horizon, The Last Days On Mars or Titan Find.

The shadows of Event Horizon in particular loom long over this low-budget SF/horror effort and, for the first half at least, it's pretty enjoyable. Something inexplicable has gone wrong on Infini, the remotest mining facility in the galaxy. A rescue squad is despatched via "slipstreaming" (instant teleportation), but when they return they've been infected with some kind of primordial contagion; a second squad is immediately sent to find out what happened and bring the sole survivor home....

It's a pity that much of the second half of Infini degenerates into endless scenes of people beating each other up and needlessly swearing. I'm not usually fussed about bad language in movies but on this occasion it does feel overdone, and the characters aren't really well enough drawn or sufficiently distinct from each other to persuade you care very much about what happens to any of them. And given that it's highly likely that by this point the entire team is infected, you can't help but wonder why they're fighting anyway. Meanwhile, a potential subplot about your data stream being corrupted by unauthorised or excessive slipstreaming goes sadly unexplored.

More damagingly, the film's resolution is (without getting too spoilery) a huge Star Trek cop out in which peace and love win out over conflict and hate. It's a very nice SF idea about aspects of humanity but it does feel slightly out of place after an hour of contagion horror and thumping violence. I could also have done without the old device of the hero needing to get back home to his pregnant wife for his child's imminent birth.

It's a pity because Infini is pretty well mounted on a technical level (I'm all in favour of lens flare, for no other reason than it looks good) in spite of the low budget. Sure, the set design of the Infini facility doesn't look that different from a hundred other genre movies, or even the more ambitious episodes of something like Doctor Who or Red Dwarf, but it's well used and well shot. The use of an interplanetary transporter beam means there are no actual shots of vast spaceships or even starfields, but it does also mean we can cut to the action that much quicker. Perhaps too quickly: the film doesn't waste very much time pitching you in at the deep end, but I'd rather that than being steadily spoonfed information before anything happens.

For all its flaws, I quite enjoyed Infini, though interest definitely dropped off in the second half. But it's well put together, has some interesting ideas and looks great. It doesn't hang together overall but there's enough good stuff in there to get by, and you've certainly seen a lot worse on a higher budget. No Event Horizon, but no Doom either.

***

Thursday, 10 December 2015

CENTIPEDE HORROR

CONTAINS SPOILERS

There's not a lot one can say to prepare you for this one, beyond the simple advice: Contains Centipedes. Chilopodophobics should be aware that this 1982 offering does have centipedes in it (unlike Tom Six's Human Centipede trilogy of wrongness): close-ups of the little critters running around, scuttling over peoples' faces and bodies. It also has gore, nudity, silliness, terrible dialogue (at least in the subtitles) and a plot that doesn't seem to make a lot of sense, unless I nodded off at a key moment which is admittedly possible. (It's also got one of those Hong Kong soundtracks that seems to have a whole load of other film music randomly dropped into it.)

But Centipede Horror does at least tell me a story I haven't seen before: a young woman in Hong Kong travels to "South East Asia" (the exact country is never specified) against the advice of her businessman brother. On a guided tour she wanders into the woods and is attacked by centipedes: the doctors can't figure out what's wrong with her but her brother discovers it might have something to do with a family curse that started when their grandfather worked out there in the mines, thanks to a wizard casting black magic spells to get his revenge...

Or something. Chief of the horrors is towards the end with what looks unpleasantly like real live centipedes being vomited up by the possessed woman; much of the rest of the film is babbling insanity or tiresome family blather, interest in which is further hindered by poor subtitling (white on white, sometimes nonsensical). It's a little more intriguing and unusual than the more familiar Asian horrors of decades past like Mr Vampire or Encounters Of The Spooky Kind, but it's not really well enough done to be more than a moderately disgusting curio. Hardly surprising perhaps that UK distribution has been somewhat limited,

**

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

KILLER KLOWNS FROM OUTER SPACE

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS

You certainly can't accuse this movie of dishonesty and false advertising on the grounds that it doesn't contain killer clowns (or klowns) or that they're not from space: it does, and they are. In that sense it's as does-what-it-says-on-the-tin brilliant a title as Cannibal Woman In The Avocado Jungle Of Death or Mega Shark Vs Giant Octopus, or indeed anything from the more outre end of Troma Films: the deliberately absurd comedy horror demands a ridiculous title and Killer Klowns From Outer Space is certainly a good one.

It's also, surprisingly, not a bad film. Certainly I enjoyed it more on BluRay the other night than back in the early 1990s when I rented the VHS release, because there's a phenomenal level of silliness to the movie that makes it pretty well impossible to take seriously and very difficult to hate. Alien circus clowns land a spaceship in the middle of the woods near a small town with the sole purpose of abducting the entire population, and either cocooning them in candy floss or trapping them in giant balloons. The ship is discovered by a pair of amorous teenagers, but the local police won't be convinced (led as they are by a spectacularly hardass John Vernon), even as the Klowns rampage through the town picking off and the locals in amusing circus-related ways....

It's an incredibly daft idea, though at least there is a quick line of dialogue putting forth a possible justification for it (that these aliens have been visiting Earth throughout history, and it's from them that we've created the concept of clowns). But at least they do take the idea as far as they possibly can: from balloon animals to custard pies, from the impossibly crowded clown car to shadow puppetry and ventriloquism, from the famous Entry Of The Gladiators circus music to the hilarious squirting flower prank.

The film is written and produced by the three Chiodo brothers (Charles, Edward, and Stephen, who also directed), probably known better as a prosthetic creature effects team in films like Critters. And again it has to be said that the sometimes hokey practical and optical work looks far better than any amount of shiny, charmless CGI, because they exist as actual physical entities rather than data files on a hard drive somewhere. That is not to say that computer effects have no place: when properly designed and well integrated into the rest of the film they can make for genuinely jawdropping spectacle (Gravity, Godzilla, Jurassic Park). But in a silly, cheesy horror comedy I'll happily take rubber and gloop any time. Killer Klowns From Outer Space may be a minor cult oddity with a nostalgic charm about it (whether the same will apply to the supposedly upcoming 3D sequel is anyone's guess), but over twenty years later it's still worth a look.

***